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Books by Randall Jar r ell 





LOSSES 1948 









Randall Jarrell 



Essays Sc Fables 

Atheneum : New York 

these essays, in a shorter or earlier form, have been 
printed in The Saturday Evening Post, Figaro, Daedalus, 
The American Scholar, Art Neivs, Mademoiselle and 
The New Republic; and in The Anchor Book of Stories, 
The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling, Understand- 
ing Poetry and Wilderness of Ladies. The author grate- 
fully acknowledges permission to reprint. 

Copyright © 1962 by Randall Jarrell 
Copyright 1938, 1950, © i960 by Holt, Rinehart and 
Winston, Inc.; copyright 1953 by The Art Foundation 
Press, Inc.; copyright © 19$$ by Street and Smith Pub- 
lications, Inc.; copyright © 1959 by The Curtis Publish- 
ing Company; copyright © 19s 9 by the United Chapters 
of Phi Beta Kappa; copyright © i960 by Eleanor Ross 
Taylor; copyright © 1961 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. 
All rights reserved 
Library of Congress Catalog card number 62-11681 
Published simultaneously in Canada by 
McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 
Manufactured in the United States of America by 
Kingsport Press, Inc., Kingsport, Tennessee 
Designed by Harry Ford 
First Edition 




To /kfaij 

The Author to the Reader 

I've read that Luther said (it's come to me 
So often that Fve made it into meter) : 
And even if the world should end tomorrow 
I still would plant my little apple-tree. 
Here, reader, is my little apple-tree. 















The Intellectual in America 

Th e philosopher Diogenes lived in a tub in 
the market place. He owned the clothes on 
his back and a wooden cup; one morning, when he 
saw a man drinking out of his hands, he threw 
away the cup. Alexander the Great came to Athens, 
and went down to the market place to see Diogenes; 
as he was about to leave he asked: "Is there any- 
thing I can do for you?" "Yes," said Diogenes, "you 
can get out of my light." 

At different times, and in different places, this 
story has meant different things. The ages and 
places that have venerated wisdom, reason, lovers 
of wisdom — most ages and places have done so — 
have listened to the story and thought with wonder- 
ing delight: "The things a man can do without!" 
Alexander may have owned Greece, Asia Minor, 
and part of Africa, but there was nothing he could 
do for Diogenes but move over and let the light fall 
on him. What is real in the world: that is what we 
must learn, Rilke wrote. Diogenes had learned; so 
that he could no longer be tipped or bribed with 


a The Intellectual in America 

Greece, Asia Minor, and part of Africa — with what 
the world thought reality, and he illusion. He had 
remained in his place, the place of wisdom, and 
had put Alexander the Great in his place, the place 
of power. 

But when our age, our country, listens to the 
story of how Alexander stood in Diogenes' light, 
it asks perplexedly: "What was he doing there?" 
Why should a statesman, a general, make a sort of 
pilgrimage to a poverty-stricken philosopher, an 
intellectual of the most eccentric kind? We 
wouldn't. Most of us distrust intellectuals as such: 
we feel that they must be abnormal or else they 
wouldn't be intellectuals. This is so plain that a 
magazine like Variety can call our time "the era 
when to be accused of having some intellect is tanta- 
mount to vilification"; Brooks Atkinson, after not- 
ing that the American Psychological Association 
"has made the same point in more technical lan- 
guage," can conclude that "a passion for ignorance 
has swept the country." These passions never last; 
it is the settled marriage of convenience that trou- 
bles an American. A historian like Henry Steele 
Commager can say that "the historian of the future 
who chronicles this decade will be puzzled by the 
depth, strength, and prevalence of our anti-intellec- 
tualism," and can refer to "the vague aura of guilt 
that surrounds association with academic, intellec- 
tual, literary, and reform societies." When, a few 
years ago, men like McCarthy or Westbrook Pegler 
attacked or made fun of a man like Dean Acheson, 

The Intellectual in America 5 

they used as one of their most effective points 
against him the fact that he had— gone to Harvard.* 
Would their English or French or German counter- 
parts have been able to use Oxford, the Sorbonne, 
or Heidelberg in the same way? Nor is it a question 
of party: plenty of Democrats would have done 
the same thing to a Republican Secretary of State; 
and when General Eisenhower defined an intellec- 
tual as "a man who takes more wordsj^a^isjiejces- 
sary to tell more than he knows," he was speaking 
not as a Republican but as an American. 

Haven't people got the story of Diogenes and 
Alexander backward? Didn't Diogenes wait, and 
wait, and wait? and, finally, go to Macedonia and 
get his Senator to make an appointment for him 
with the Emperor? and didn't the Palace Secretary 
say to the Senator, after seeing the week's schedule: 
Miss Macedonia, and the President of the Mace- 
donian Federation of Labor, and the House Com- 
mittee on Un-Macedonian Activities, and a dele- 
gation from the Macedonian Legion— didn't the 
Secretary say to Diogenes' Senator, as politely as 
he could: "The Emperor is a practical man, and 
has no time for philosophers"? 

And then Diogenes went back to Athens. He 
had always been alone in his tub but, somehow, 

* The reader will murmur with a smile: "That someone has 
gone to Harvard has rather a different point in 1962." Yes, 
doesn't it?— the same point that it had in 1932 or '42, under the 
second Roosevelt. Which of the points will it have in 1972 or 
'82? The tide goes in and the tide goes out, but the beach stays 
sand and the sea stays salt— and it is the sand and the salt that 
I am writing about. 

O* The Intellectual in America 

he hadn't felt lonely: he had had for company the 
knowledge that someday Alexander would come — 
had had for company people's good will or good- 
humored indifference, their surprised or amused 
admiration, their resigned immemorial: "We may 
not have the sense or the time, but someone has to 
be wise." But now it was different. A Voice said 
to Diogenes, like the voice of God: "If some are 
wise, then others must be foolish: therefore I will 
have no one wise." 

The Voice went on: "You highbrows, you long- 
hairs, you eggheads, are the way you are because 
there's something wrong with you. You sit there 
in your ivory tower" — but really it was a tub; 
where would Diogenes have got the money to buy 
a tower? — "pretending you're so different from 
other people, wasting your time on all these books 
nobody buys, and all these pictures my six-year-old 
boy can draw better than, and all these equations it 
takes another egghead like yourself to make heads 
or tails of — why don't you get wise to yourself and 
do what I do, and say what I say, and think like 
I think, and then maybe I'd have some respect for 

It was hard for Diogenes to know what to an- 
swer; and when he looked at his tub, it looked 
smaller and dingier than it used to look; and when 
he looked at the philosophy that had grown out 
of the tub, he felt about it the way an old Chinese 
poet said that he felt about his poetry: that if he 

The Intellectual in America y 

wrote one of his poems on a cookie and gave it to 
a dog, the dog wouldn't eat it. 

What could Diogenes do? Some people say he 
changed; changed until he was exactly the same as 
everybody else, only more so. Before long, people 
say, he owned the biggest advertising agency in 
Greece — or else it was the biggest broadcasting 
company. Or else both. People respected him, then. 
And every four years, late in the summer, Alexan- 
der the Great would come to see Diogenes; and as 
he was about to leave Diogenes would ask: "Is 
there anything I can do for you?" and Alexander 
would answer: "Well, yes. There're these 
speeches." Then Diogenes would write his speeches. 

But some people say that Diogenes kept on the 
same as before, only he kept hearing voices — not 
voices exactly, but this Voice — and kept looking 
uneasily at people, as if they were about to do some- 
thing to him or say something about him, when 
really they weren't paying any attention to him at 
all, except sometimes to laugh at him or to wonder 
to each other whether maybe he wasn't a Commu- 
nist or else just crazy. There was a feeble-minded 
man in the market place that people used to laugh 
at and make jokes about, but people had got too 
civilized to make jokes about something like that 
any more, and they made them about Diogenes in- 
stead. And if you were a politician and something 
happened, you could blame it on Diogenes, part of 
the time — so he was useful to people, in a way; and 

o The Intellectual in America 

sometimes Diogenes discovered things or invented 
things — penicillin, and television, and hybrid corn, 
and tensor analysis, and the hydrogen bomb — and 
wrote books and painted pictures and composed 
music and did all sorts of things that if you put a 
practical man in charge of, a business man, you 
could make a lot of money out of. The trouble with 
him wasn't that he was useless, exactly; it was more 
that he was — different. 

One night Diogenes woke up and couldn't get 
back to sleep; he shifted back and forth in his tub, 
and repeated poems to himself, or said equations, 
or thought; finally he just lay there. And the Voice 
said to him, louder than he had ever heard it before: 

"You are free to think differently from me and 
to retain your life, your property, and all that you 
possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among 
your people. You may retain your civil rights, but 
they will be useless to you, for you will never be 
chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their 
votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask 
for their esteem. You will remain among men, but 
you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. 
Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure 
being; and even those who believe in your inno- 
cence will abandon you, lest they be shunned in 
their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, 
but it is an existence worse than death." 

. . . But these last sentences were not said to 
Diogenes by some imaginary Voice, but were writ- 
ten a hundred and twenty-five years ago by Alexis 

The Intellectual in America g 

de Tocqueville. This, he said, is what public opin- 
ion in the United States says to the man who dis- 
agrees with it. Many of this historian's statements 
about our country have a frightening and prophetic 
truth; and the passage of time has not altogether 
falsified the sentences which I have quoted. But 
things as they are in gross and confused reality are 
better than things as they were in Tocqueville's 
clear and penetrating imagination: he has created 
something which reality approaches as a limit. The 
American Diogenes is far better off inside Des 
Moines, or Jersey City, or Los Angeles, than in- 
side Tocqueville's terrible sentences. He can be- 
come a celebrity, and be treated like other celebri- 
ties: we are willing to treat Hemingway and 
Faulkner as we treat Elvis Presley and Marilyn 
Monroe. And nowadays, after all, there are other 
people like Diogenes, some of whom say to him: 
Brother; there are people who, even if they are not 
themselves intellectuals, are willing for someone 
else to be; and — just as there are people who dislike 
Negroes or Jews or the Irish, but who like good 
Negroes, good Jews, good Irishmen, ones who are 
hardly like Negroes or Jews or Irishmen at all — 
there are people who dislike intellectuals but are 
willing to like a good intellectual, one who is 
hardly like an intellectual at all. And, too, there are 
the people of the rest of the world, most of whom 
tolerate, respect, admire even, intellectuals; it is a 
consolation to American intellectuals to know that 
their situation is, in some degree, a singular one. 

j q The Intellectual in America 

They have suffered this misfortune: they are live, 
differing, individual human beings who have been 
put into a category that is itself a condemnation, of 
a kind — who are described sufficiently, people 
think, by an indicting stereotype. There is no way 
for them to free themselves of it. If we meet an 
honest and intelligent politician, a dozen, a hundred, 
we say that they aren't like politicians at all, and 
our category of politician stays unchanged: we 
know what politicians are. If a man thinks women 
men's intellectual inferiors, and keeps coming across 
women smarter than himself, he murmurs that the 
exception proves the rule, and saves for the first 
stupid woman he meets the scornful, categorizing: 
"Women!" We are this way about nationalities, 
faiths, races, sexes — about cats and dogs, even. And 
just as there are anti-Semitic Jews, women who 
despise women, there are intellectuals who enjoy 
attacking other intellectuals for being intellectuals. 
(Big fleas have little fleas to bite 'em, especially 
when the little ones know that they are going to get 
applauded by the dog.) And other intellectuals be- 
have badly in other ways. It would be odd if they 
didn't. A looked-down-on class always gets some 
of its bad qualities simple from knowing that it is 
being looked down on; the calm and generosity and 
ease of the justly respected are replaced, often, by 
the uneasy resentment of the unjustly condemned. 
Toynbee says that the Turks took it for granted 
that the "Franks" among them possessed those 
qualities which the Franks, at home in Europe, 

The Intellectual in America 1 1 

considered ghetto qualities. If you have been put in 
your place long enough, you begin to act like the 
place. Some of the intellectual's faults are only 
our imagination, and some are our fault, and some 
are his fault. But his faults and his virtues, all his 
qualities, are more varied than we say. He is smart 
sometimes, stupid sometimes; ingenuous, disingenu- 
ous; nice, awful; so that we can say with perfect 
truth about this, as about so many things: "The 
more I see of intellectuals the less I know about the 

We are all — so to speak — intellectuals about 
something. General Eisenhower is an intellectual so 
far as military strategy is concerned: he has been 
taught, has taught himself, has read and thought and 
done, all the things that enable him to speak a lan- 
guage, think thoughts, make discriminations, that 
only other such intellectuals can fully understand 
or appreciate. If you want to be impressed with 
what an unintelligent amateur you are, with what 
trained, intelligent, and discriminating intellectuals 
the professionals are, sit in a hotel room with some 
coaches scouting a game, and hear what they have 
to say about the football game you thought you 
saw that afternoon. It takes a lot more than not be- 
ing an intellectual to be right about anything. Peo- 
ple are intellectuals about all kinds of things: if you 
know all about engines, why look with resentful 
distrust at someone who knows all about string 
quartets? Intellectuals are more like plain Ameri- 
cans than plain Americans think; plenty of them are 

j 2 The Intellectual in America 

plain Americans. And if they're complicated ones, 
different, is that really so bad? My daughter was 
telling me about a different boy, a queer one, whom 
all the other children looked down their noses at. 
I said, "How's he so different?" She said, "Lots of 
ways. He — he wears corduroys instead of blue 
jeans." Forgive us each day our corduroys. 
A Plain Americans enjoy telling Diogenes what 

^f # they think of him; it would be interesting to know 
what he thinks of them. It is plain that, whether or 
not they like him, he likes them: he no longer de- 
^ spairs and flees to Europe, but stays home and suf- 

fers fairly willingly — is fairly thankful for — his na- 
tive fate. Living among them as he does, he can 
hardly avoid realizing that Americans are a likable, 
even lovable people, possessing virtues some of 
which are rare in our time and some of which are 
rare in any time. But if he were to talk about the 
faults which accompany the virtues, he might say 
that the American, characteristically, thinks that 
nothing is hard or ought to be hard except business 
and sport; everything else must come of itself. Toc- 
queville said almost this, long ago: "His curiosity 
is at once insatiable and cheaply satisfied; for he 
cares more to know a great deal quickly than to 
know anything well. . . . The habit of inattention 
must be considered as the greatest defect of the 
democratic character." And he goes on to say that 
the American's leaders — whom Tocqueville calls, 
oddly, his courtiers and flatterers — "assure him 
that he possesses all the virtues without having ac- 

The Intellectual in America I -> 

quired them, or without caring to acquire them." 
Diogenes could say to us: "You are not willing to 
labor to be wise — you are not even willing to be 
wise. It would be a change, and you are not willing 
to change: it would make you different from other 
Americans, and you are not willing to be different 
from them in any way. You wish to remain exactly 
as you are, and to have the rest of the world change 
until it is exactly like you; and it seems to you un- 
reasonable, even perverse, for the rest of the 
world not to wish this too." 

All this is very human. But it is very human, 
too, for the rest of the world, Europeans espe- 
cially, to be afraid that we shall be successful in 
transforming them into what so many of them be- 
lieve us to be: rich, powerful, and skillful barbari- 
ans, materialists who neglect or despise things of 
the mind and spirit. The American way of life, to 
many Europeans, means McCarthyism, comic 
books, Mickey Spillane, et cetera, et cetera, et cet- 
era. If we say: "But they aren't the real America," 
and name the scientists and artists and scholars who 
seem to us the real America, these Europeans will 
answer: "They! Why, you look askance at them, 
attack or make fun of them — how gladly you 
would be rid of them!" Then we shall have to ex- 
plain that they are taking a few remarks too seri- 
ously: that our country — the most advanced, tech- 
nologically and industrially, that the world has ever 
known — has to depend for every moment of its 
existence upon the work of millions of highly edu- 

j a The Intellectual in America 

cated specialists of every sort. We may not praise 
them, but we use them. Where should we be with- 
out the productions of intellectuals, the fruits of 

Perhaps we need to let our allies know more 
about American culture, so that they can feel more 
as if they were accompanying a fellow and less as 
if they were following a robot. Perhaps we need 
to let more of our own people know about it and 
share it. Nobody ever before had so much money 
to spend, so much time to spend — do we spend it 
as interestingly and imaginatively as we might? Is 
what Tocqueville said so long ago, true today: that 
Americans "carry very low tastes into their ex- 
traordinary fortunes, and seem to have acquired the 
supreme power only to minister to their coarse and 
paltry pleasures"? Is it true that "the love of well- 
being now has become the predominant taste of the 
nation"? Do Americans, democratic peoples in gen- 
eral, need nothing so much as "a more enlarged idea 
of themselves and their kind"? 

The Founding Fathers of our country were men 
who had an "enlarged idea of themselves and their 
kind"; they had for themselves and us great ex- 
pectations. Franklin and Jefferson and Adams were 
men who respected, who labored to understand, 
and who made their own additions to, science and 
philosophy and education, the things of the mind 
and of the spirit. They would have disliked the 
word intellectual, as we may dislike it, because it 
seems to set apart from most men what it is natural 

The Intellectual in America 1 5 

and laudable for all men to aspire to — our species 
is called homo sapiens; but they would have ad- 
mitted that, if you wanted to use the word, they 
were intellectuals. To look down upon, to stigma- 
tize as eccentric or peripheral, science and art and 
philosophy, human thought, would have seemed to 
them un-American. It would not have seemed to 
them, even, human. 

That most human and American of presidents — 
of Americans — Abraham Lincoln, said as a young 
man: "The things I want to know are in books; my 
best friend is the man who'll get me a book I 
ain't read." It's a hard heart, and a dull one, that 
doesn't go out to that sentence. The man who will 
make us see what we haven't seen, feel what we 
haven't felt, understand what we haven't under- 
stood — he is our best friend. And if he knows more 
than we do, that is an invitation to us, not an indict- 
ment of us. And it is not an indictment of him, 
either; it takes all sorts of people to make a world 
— to make, even, a United States of America. 

The Taste of the Age 

Wh e n we look at the age in which we live 
— no matter what age it happens to be — 
it is hard for us not to be depressed by it. The 
taste of the age is, always, a bitter one. "What kind 
of a time is this when one must envy the dead and 
buried!" said Goethe about his age; yet Matthew 
Arnold would have traded his own time for Goe- 
the's almost as willingly as he would have traded 
his own self for Goethe's. How often, after a long 
day witnessing elementary education, School In- 
spector Arnold came home, sank into what I hope 
was a Morris chair, looked round him at the Age 
of Victoria, that Indian Summer of the Western 
World, and gave way to a wistful, exacting, articu- 
late despair! 

Do people feel this way because our time is worse 
than Arnold's, and Arnold's than Goethe's, and so 
on back to Paradise? Or because forbidden fruits — 
the fruits forbidden us by time — are always the 
sweetest? Or because we can never compare our 


The Taste of the Age 1 7 

own age with an earlier age, but only with books 
about that age? 

We say that somebody doesn't know what he is 
missing; Arnold, pretty plainly, didn't know what 
he was having. The people who live in a Golden 
Age usually go around complaining how yellow 
everything looks. Maybe we too are living in a 
Golden or, anyway, Gold-Plated Age, and the peo- 
ple of the future will look back at us and say rue- 
fully: "We never had it so good." And yet the 
thought that they will say this isn't as reassuring 
as it might be. We can see that Goethe's and Ar- 
nold's ages weren't as bad as Goethe and Arnold 
thought them: after all, they produced Goethe and 
Arnold. In the same way, our times may not be as 
bad as we think them: after all, they have produced 
us. Yet this too is a thought that isn't as reassuring 
as it might be. 

A Tale of Two Cities begins by saying that the 
times were, as always, "the best of times, the worst 
of times!" If we judge by wealth and power, our 
times are the best of times; if the times have made 
us willing to judge by wealth and power, they are 
the worst of times. But most of us still judge by 
more: by literature and the arts, science and phi- 
losophy, education. (Really we judge by more than 
these: by love and wisdom; but how are we to say 
whether our own age is wiser and more loving than 
another?) I wish to talk to you for a time about 
what is happening to the audience for the arts and 

1 8 The Taste of the Age 

literature, and to the education that prepares this 
audience, here in the United States. 

In some ways this audience is improving, has im- 
proved, tremendously. Today it is as easy for us to 
get Falstaff or Boris Godunov or Ariadne auf 
Naxos, or Landowska playing The Well-Tempered 
Clavichord, or Fischer-Dieskau singing Die Schone 
Mullerin, or Richter playing Beethoven's piano 
sonatas, as it used to be to get Mischa Elman play- 
ing Humoresque. Several hundred thousand Ameri- 
cans bought Toscanini's recording of Beethoven's 
Ninth Symphony. Some of them played it only to 
show how faithful their phonographs are; some of 
them played it only as the stimulus for an hour of 
random, homely rumination. But many of them 
really listened to the records — and, later, went to 
hear the artists who made the records — and, later, 
bought for themselves, got to know and love, com- 
positions that a few years ago nobody but musi- 
cologists or musicians of the most advanced tastes 
had even read the scores of. That there are sadder 
things about the state of music here, I know; still, 
we are better off than we were twenty-five or 
thirty years ago. Better off, too, so far as the ballet 
is concerned: it is our good fortune to have had 
the greatest influence on American ballet the influ- 
ence of the greatest choreographer who ever lived, 
that "Mozart of choreographers" George Balan- 

Here today the visual arts are — but I don't know 
whether to borrow my simile from the Bible, and 

The Taste of the Age 1 9 

say flourishing like the green bay tree, or to borrow 
it from Shakespeare and say growing like a weed. 
We are producing paintings and reproductions of 
paintings, painters and reproductions of painters, 
teachers and museum-directors and gallery-goers 
and patrons of the arts, in almost celestial quantities. 
Most of the painters are bad or mediocre, of course 
— this is so, necessarily, in any art at any time — 
but the good ones find shelter in numbers, are 
bought, employed, and looked at like the rest. The 
people of the past rejected Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, 
the many great painters they did not understand; 
by liking and encouraging, without exception, all 
the painters they do not understand, the people of 
the present have made it impossible for this to hap- 
pen again. 

Our society, it turns out, can use modern art. A 
restaurant, today, will order a mural by Miro in as 
easy and matter-of-fact a spirit as, twenty-five 
years ago, it would have ordered one by Maxfield 
Parrish. The president of a paint factory goes home, 
sits down by his fireplace — it looks like a chromium 
acquarium set into the wall by a wall-safe com- 
pany that has branched out into interior decorating, 
but there is a log burning in it, he calls it a fire- 
place, let's call it a fireplace too — the president sits 
down, folds his hands on his stomach, and stares 
relishingly at two paintings by Jackson Pollock that 
he has hung on the wall opposite him. He feels at 
home with them; in fact, as he looks at them he not 
only feels at home, he feels as if he were back at 

2 o The Taste of the Age 

the paint factory. And his children — if he has any 
— his children cry for Calder. He uses thoroughly 
advanced, wholly non-representational artists to 
design murals, posters, institutional advertisements: 
if we have the patience (or are given the oppor- 
tunity) to wait until the West has declined a little 
longer, we shall all see the advertisements of Mer- 
rill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith illustrated by 
Jean Dubuffet. 

This president's minor executives may not be 
willing to hang a Kandinsky in the house, but they 
will wear one, if you make it into a sport shirt or 
a pair of swimming- trunks; and if you make it into 
a sofa, they will lie on it. They and their wives and 
children will sit on a porcupine, if you first exhibit 
it at the Museum of Modern Art and say that it is 
a chair. In fact, there is nothing, nothing in the 
whole world that someone won't buy and sit in if 
you tell him that it is a chair: the great new art 
form of our age, the one that will take anything 
we put in it, is the chair. If Hieronymus Bosch, if 
Christian Morgenstern, if the Marquis de Sade were 
living at this hour, what chairs they would be 

Our architecture is flourishing too. Even colleges 
have stopped rebuilding the cathedrals of Europe 
on their campuses; and a mansion, today, is what 
it is not because a millionaire has dreamed of the 
Alhambra, but because an architect has dreamed of 
the marriage of Frank Lloyd Wright and a silo. We 

The Taste of the Age 2 I 

Americans have the best factories anyone has ever 
designed; we have many schools, post-offices, and 
public buildings that are, so far as one can see, the 
best factories anyone has ever designed; we have 
many delightful, or efficient, or extraordinary 
houses. The public that lives in the houses our archi- 
tects design — most houses, of course, are not de- 
signed, but just happen to a contractor — this public 
is a broad-minded, tolerant, adventurous public, 
one that has triumphed over inherited prejudice to 
an astonishing degree. You can put a spherical 
plastic gas-tower on aluminum stilts, divide it into 
rooms, and quite a few people will be willing to 
crawl along saying, "Is this the floor? Is this the 
wall?" — to make a down-payment, and to call it 
home. I myself welcome this spirit, a spirit worthy 
of Captain Nemo, of Rossum's Universal Robots, 
of the inhabitants of the Island of Laputa; when in 
a few years some young American airmen are living 
in a space-satellite part way to the moon, more than 
one of them will be able to look around and think: 
"It's a home just like Father used to make," if his 
father was an architect. 

But in the rest of the arts, the arts that use 
words — 

But here you may interrupt me, saying: "You've 
praised or characterized or made fun of the audi- 
ence for music, dancing, painting, furniture, and 
architecture, yet each time you've talked only 
about the crust of the pie, about things that apply 

2 Tfre Tarte of ?&<? Age 

to hundreds of thousands, not to hundreds of mil- 
lions. Most people don't listen to classical music at 
all, but to rock-and-roll or hillbilly songs or some 
album named Music To Listen To Music By; 
they've never seen any ballet except a television 
ballet or some musical comedy's last echo of Rodeo. 
When they go home they sit inside chairs like imita- 
tion-leather haystacks, chairs that were exhibited 
not at the Museum of Modern Art but at a conven- 
tion of furniture dealers in High Point; if they buy 
a picture they buy it from the furniture dealer, and 
it was the furniture dealer who painted it; and their 
houses are split-level ranch-type rabbit-warrens. 
Now that you've come to the 'arts that use words/ 
are you going to keep on talking about the unhappy 
few, or will you talk for a change about the happy 

I'll talk about the happy many; about the hun- 
dreds of millions, not the hundreds of thousands. 
Where words and the hundreds of thousands are 
concerned, plenty of good things happen — though 
to those who love words and the arts that use them, 
it may all seem far from plenty. We do have good 
writers, perhaps more than we deserve — and good 
readers, perhaps fewer than the writers deserve. But 
when it comes to tens of millions of readers, hun- 
dreds of millions of hearers and viewers, we are 
talking about a new and strange situation; and to 
understand why this situation is what it is, we need 
to go back in time a little way, back to the days 
of Matthew Arnold and Queen Victoria. 

The Taste of the Age 2 7 


We all remember that Queen Victoria, when she 
died in 1901, had never got to see a helicopter, a 
television set, penicillin, an electric refrigerator; yet 
she had seen railroads, electric lights, textile ma- 
chinery, the telegraph — she came about midway in 
the industrial and technological revolution that has 
transformed our world. But there are a good many 
other things, of a rather different sort, that Queen 
Victoria never got to see, because she came at the 
very beginning of another sort of half-technologi- 
cal, half-cultural revolution. Let me give some ex- 

If the young Queen Victoria had said to the Duke 
of Wellington: "Sir, the Bureau of Public Relations 
of Our army is in a deplorable state," he would have 
answered: "What is a Bureau of Public Relations, 
ma'am?" When he and his generals wanted to tell 
lies, they had to tell them themselves; there was no 
organized institution set up to do it for them. But 
of course Queen Victoria couldn't have made any 
such remark, since she too had never heard of pub- 
He relations. She had never seen, or heard about, or 
dreamed of an advertising agency; she had never 
seen — unless you count Barnum — a press agent; 
she had never seen a photograph of a sex-slaying in 
a tabloid — had never seen a tabloid. People gossiped 
about her, but not in gossip columns; she had never 
heard a commentator, a soap opera, a quiz pro- 
gram. Queen Victoria — think of it! — had never 

2 a The Taste of the Age 

heard a singing commercial, never seen an advertise- 
ment beginning: Science says . . . and if she had 
seen one she would only have retorted: "And what, 
pray, does the Archbishop of Canterbury say? 
What does dear good Albert say?" 

When some comedian or wit — Sydney Smith, for 
example — told Queen Victoria jokes, they weren't 
supplied him by six well-paid gag-writers, but 
just occurred to him. When Disraeli and Gladstone 
made speeches for her government, the speeches 
weren't written for them by ghost-writers; when 
Disraeli and Gladstone sent her lovingly or respect- 
fully inscribed copies of their new books, they had 
written the books themselves. There they were, 
with the resources of an empire at their command, 
and they wrote the books themselves! And Queen 
Victoria had to read the books herself: nobody was 
willing — or able — to digest them for her in Read- 
ers'' Digest, or to make movies of them, or to make 
radio- or television-programs of them, so that she 
could experience them painlessly and effortlessly. 
In those days people chewed their own food or 
went hungry; we have changed all that. 

Queen Victoria never went to the movies and had 
an epic costing eight million dollars injected into 
her veins — she never went to the movies. She never 
read a drugstore book by Mickey Spillane; even if 
she had had a moral breakdown and had read a Bad 
Book, it would just have been Under Two Flags 
or something by Marie Corelli. She had never been 
interviewed by, or read the findings of, a Gallup 

The Taste of the Age 2 c 

Poll. She never read the report of a commission of 
sociologists subsidized by the Ford Foundation; she 
never Adjusted herself to her Group, or Shared the 
Experience of her Generation, or breathed a little 
deeper to feel herself a part of the Century of the 
Common Man — she "was a part of it for almost two 
years, but she didn't know that that was what it 

And all the other people in the world were just 
like Queen Victoria. 

Isn't it plain that it is all these lacks that make 
Queen Victoria so old-fashioned, so finally and 
awfully different from us, rather than the fact that 
she never flew in an airplane, or took insulin, or had 
a hydrogen bomb dropped on her? Queen Victoria 
in a D. C. 7 would be Queen Victoria still — I can 
hear her saying to the stewardess: "We do not wish 
dramamine"; but a Queen Victoria who listened ev- 
ery day to ]ohr?s Other Wife, Portia Faces Life, 
and Just Plain Bill — that wouldn't be Queen Vic- 
toria at all! 

There has been not one revolution, an industrial 
and technological revolution, there have been two; 
and this second, cultural revolution might be called 
the Revolution of the Word. People have learned 
to process words too — words, and the thoughts and 
attitudes they embody: we manufacture entertain- 
ment and consolation as efficiently as we manufac- 
ture anything else. One sees in stores ordinary old- 
fashioned oatmeal or cocoa; and, side by side with 
it, another kind called Instant Cocoa, Instant Oats. 

^ The Taste of the Age 

Most of our literature — I use the word in its broad- 
est sense — is Instant Literature: the words are short, 
easy, instantly recognizable words, the thoughts are 
easy, familiar, instantly recognizable thoughts, the 
attitudes are familiar, already-agreed-upon, in- 
stantly acceptable attitudes. And if all this is true, 
can these productions be either truth or — in the 
narrower and higher sense — literature? The truth, 
as everybody knows, is sometimes complicated or 
hard to understand; is sometimes almost unrecog- 
nizably different from what we expected it to be; 
is sometimes difficult or, even, impossible to accept. 
But literature is necessarily mixed up with truth, 
isn't it? — our truth, truth as we know it; one can 
almost define literature as the union of a wish and 
a truth, or as a wish modified by a truth. But this 
Instant Literature is a wish reinforced by a cliche, 
a wish proved by a lie: Instant Literature — whether 
it is a soap opera, a Broadway play, or a historical, 
sexual best-seller — tells us always that life is not 
only what we wish it, but also what we think it. 
When people are treating him as a lunatic who has 
to be humored, Hamlet cries: "They fool me to the 
top of my bent"; and the makers of Instant Litera- 
ture treat us exactly as advertisers treat the read- 
ers of advertisements — humor us, flatter our preju- 
dices, pull our strings, show us that they know us 
for what they take us to be: impressionable, emo- 
tional, ignorant, somewhat weak-minded Common 
Men. They fool us to the top of our bent — and if 

The Taste of the Age 2 7 

we aren't fooled, they dismiss us as a statistically 
negligible minority. 

An advertisement is a wish modified, if at all, by 
the Pure Food and Drug Act. Take a loaf of ordi- 
nary white bread that you buy at the grocery. As 
you eat it you know that you are eating it, and not 
the blotter, because the blotter isn't so bland; yet 
in the world of advertisements little boys ask their 
mother not to put any jam on their bread, it tastes 
so good without. This world of the advertisements 
is a literary world, of a kind: it is the world of In- 
stant Literature. Think of some of the speeches we 
hear in political campaigns — aren't they too part of 
the world of Instant Literature? And the first story 
you read in the Saturday Evening Tost, the first 
movie you go to at your neighborhood theater, the 
first dramatic program you hear on the radio, see 
on television — are these more like Grimm's Tales 
and Alice in Wonderland and The Three Sisters and 
Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare and the Bible, or are 
they more like political speeches and advertise- 

The greatest American industry — why has no 
one ever said so? — is the industry of using words. 
We pay tens of millions of people to spend their 
lives lying to us, or telling us the truth, or supplying 
us with a nourishing medicinal compound of the 
two. All of us are living in the middle of a dark 
wood — a bright Technicolored forest — of words, 
words, words. It is a forest in which the wind is 

2 g The Taste of the Age 

never still: there isn't a tree in the forest that is not, 
for every moment of its life and our lives, persuad- 
ing or ordering or seducing or overawing us into 
buying this, believing that, voting for the other. 
And yet, the more words there are, the simpler 
the words get. The professional users of words 
process their product as if it were baby food and 
we babies: all we have to do is open our mouths 
and swallow. Most of our mental and moral food 
is quick-frozen, pre-digested, spoon-fed. E. M. 
Forster has said: "The only thing we learn from 
spoon-feeding is the shape of the spoon." Not only 
is this true — pretty soon, if anything doesn't have 
the shape of that spoon we won't swallow it, we 
can't swallow it. Our century has produced some 
great and much good literature, but the habitual 
readers of Instant Literature cannot read it; nor can 
they read the great and good literature of the past. 
If Queen Victoria had got to read the Readers' 
Digest — awful thought! — she would have loved it; 
and it would have changed her. Everything in the 
world, in the Readers' Digest— I am using it as a 
convenient symbol for all that is like it — is a pal- 
atable, timely, ultimately reassuring anecdote, im- 
mediately comprehensible to everybody over, and 
to many under, the age of eight. Queen Victoria 
would notice that Albert kept quoting, from Shake- 
speare—that the Archbishop of Canterbury kept 
quoting, from the Bible — things that were very dif- 
ferent from anything in the Readers' Digest. Some- 
times these sentences were not reassuring but dis- 

The Taste of the Age 2 o 

quieting, sometimes they had big words or hard 
thoughts in them, sometimes the interest in them 
wasn't human, but literary or divine. After a while 
Queen Victoria would want Shakespeare and the 
Bible — would want Albert, even — digested for her 
beforehand by the Readers' Digest. And a little fur- 
ther on in this process of digestion, she would look 
from the Readers 1 Digest to some magazine the size 
of your palm, called Quick or Pic or Click or The 
Week in TV, and a strange half -sexual yearning 
would move like musk through her veins, and she 
would — 

But I cannot, I will not say it. You and I know 
how she and Albert will end: sitting before the 
television set, staring into it, silent; and inside the 
set, there are Victoria and Albert, staring into the 
television camera, silent, and the master of cere- 
monies is saying to them: "No, I think you will find 
that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota!" 

But for so long as she still reads, Queen Victoria 
will be able to get the Bible and Shakespeare — 
though not, alas! Albert — in some specially pre- 
pared form. Fulton Oursler or Fulton J. Sheen or 
a thousand others are always re- writing the Bible; 
there are many comic-book versions of Shake- 
speare; and only the other day I read an account 
of an interesting project of re- writing Shakespeare 
"for students": 

Philadelphia, Pa. Feb. i. (ap) 

Two high school teachers have published a simplified 
version of Shakespeare's *'Juliias Caesar" and plan to 

The Taste of the Age 

do the same for "Macbeth." Their goal is to make the 
plays more understandable to youth. 

The teachers, Jack A. Waypen and Leroy S. Layton, 
say if the Bible can be revised and modernized why 
not Shakespeare? They made 1,122 changes in "Julius 
Caesar" from single words to entire passages. They 
modernized obsolete words and expressions and sub- 
stituted "you" for "thee" and "thou." 

Shakespeare had Brutus say in Act III, Scene I: 

Fates, we will know your pleasures; 

That we shall die, we know; 'tis but the time 

And drawing days out, that men stand upon. 

In the Waypen-Layton version, Brutus says: 

We will soon know what Fate decrees for us. 
That we shall die, we know. It's putting off 
The time of death that's of concern to men. 

Not being Shakespeare, I can't find a comment 
worthy of this, this project. I am tempted to say in 
an Elizabethan voice: "Ah, wayward Waypen, 
lascivious Layton, lay down thine errant pen!" And 
yet if I said this to them they would only reply 
earnestly, uncomprehendingly, sorrowfully: "Can't 
you give us some constructive criticism, not de- 
structive? Why don't you say your errant pen, 
not thine? And lascivious! Mr. Jarrell, if you have 
to talk about that type subject, don't say lascivious 
Layton, say sexy Layton!" 

Even Little Red Riding Hood is getting too hard 
for children, I read. The headline of the story is 
child's books being made more simple; the 
story comes from New York, is distributed by the 

The Taste of the Age 3 I 

International News Service, and is written by Miss 
Olga Curtis. Miss Curtis has interviewed Julius 
Kushner, the head of a firm that has been publishing 
children's books longer than anyone else in the 
country. He tells Miss Curtis: 

"Non-essential details have disappeared from the 
1953 Little Red Riding Hood story. Modern 
children enjoy their stories better stripped down to 
basic plot — for instance, Little Red Riding Hood 
meets wolf, Little Red Riding Hood escapes wolf. 
[I have a comment: the name Little Red Riding 
Hood seems to me both long and non-essential — 
why not call the child Red, and strip the story down 
to Red meets wolf, Red escapes wolf? At this rate, 
one could tell a child all of Grimm's tales between 
dinner and bed-time.] 

" 'We have to keep up with the mood of each 
generation,' Kushner explained. 'Today's children 
like stories condensed to essentials, and with visual 
and tactile appeal as well as interesting content.' 

"Modernizing old favorites, Kushner said, is fun- 
damentally a matter of simplifying. Kushner added 
that today's children's books are intended to be 
activity games as well as reading matter. He men- 
tioned books that make noises when pressed, and 
books with pop-up three-dimensional illustrations 
as examples of publishers' efforts to make each book 
a teaching aid as well as a story." 

As one reads one sees before one, as if in a vision, 
the children's book of the future: a book that, 
pressed, says: Vm your friend; teaches the child 

- 2 The Taste of the Age 

that Crime Does Not Pay; does not exceed thirty 
words; can be used as a heating-pad if the electric 
blanket breaks down; and has three-dimensional il- 
lustrations dyed with harmless vegetable coloring 
matter and flavored with pure vanilla. I can hear 
the children of the future crying: "Mother, read 
us another vanilla book!" 

But by this time you must be thinking, as I am, 
of one of the more frightening things about our 
age: that much of the body of common knowledge 
that educated people (and many uneducated peo- 
ple) once had, has disappeared or is rapidly disap- 
pearing. Fairy tales, myths, proverbs, history — the 
Bible and Shakespeare and Dickens, the Odyssey 
and Gulliver's Travels — these and all the things like 
them are surprisingly often things that most of an 
audience won't understand an allusion to, a joke 
about. These things were the ground on which the 
people of the past came together, Much of the wit 
or charm or elevation of any writing or conver- 
sation with an atmosphere depends upon this pre- 
supposed, easily and affectionately remembered 
body of common knowledge; because of it we un- 
derstand things, feel about things, as human beings 
and not as human animals. 

Who teaches us all this? Our families, our friends, 
our schools, society in general. Most of all, we 
hope, our schools. When I say schools I mean gram- 
mar schools and high schools and colleges — but 
the first two are more important. Most people still 
don't go to college, and those who do don't get 

The Taste of the Age -> -> 

there until they are seventeen or eighteen. "Give 
us a child until he is seven and he is ours," a Jesuit 
is supposed to have said; the grammar schools and 
high schools of the United States have a child for 
ten years longer, and then he is — whose? Shake- 
speare's? Leroy S. Layton's? The Readers' Di- 
gest's} When students at last leave high school or 
go on to college, what are they like? 

1 1 1 

College teachers continually complain about 
their students' "lack of preparation," just as, each 
winter, they complain about the winter's lack of 
snow. Winters don't have as much snow as winters 
used to have: things are going to the dogs and al- 
ways have been. The teachers tell one another sto- 
ries about The Things Their Students Don't Know 
— it surprises you, after a few thousand such sto- 
ries, that the students manage to find their way to 
the college. And yet, I have to admit, I have as many 
stories as the rest; and, veteran of such conversa- 
tions as I am, I am continually being astonished at 
the things my students don't know. 

One dark, cold, rainy night — the sort of night on 
which clients came to Sherlock Holmes — I read in 
a magazine that winters don't have as much snow 
as winters used to have; according to meteorolo- 
gists, the climate is changing. Maybe the students 
are changing too. One is always hearing how much 
worse, or how much better, schools are than they 

^ a The Taste of the Age 

used to be. But one isn't any longer going to gram- 
mar school, or to high school either; one isn't, like 
Arnold, a school inspector; whether one believes 
or disbelieves, blames or praises, how little one has 
to go on! Hearing one child say to another: "What 
does E come after in the alphabet?" makes a great, 
and perhaps unfair, impression on one. The child 
may not be what is called a random sample. 

Sitting in my living room by the nice warm fire, 
and occasionally looking with pleasure at the rain 
and night outside — how glad I was that I wasn't 
in them! — I thought of some other samples I had 
seen just that winter, and I wasn't sure whether 
they were random, either. That winter I had had 
occasion to talk with some fifth-grade students and 
some eighth-grade students; I had gone to a class of 
theirs; I had even gone carolling, in a truck, with 
some Girl Scouts and their Scoutmistress, and had 
been dismayed at all the carols I didn't know — it 
was a part of my education that had been neglected. 

I was not dismayed at the things the children 
hadn't known, I was overawed; there were very few 
parts of their education that had not been neglected. 
Half the fifth-grade children — you won't, just as 
I couldn't, believe this — didn't know who Jonah 
was; only a few had ever heard of King Arthur. 
When I asked an eighth-grade student about King 
Arthur she laughed at my question, and said: "Of 
course I know who King Arthur was." My heart 
warmed to her of course. But she didn't know who 
Lancelot was, didn't know who Guinevere was; 

The Taste of the Age 3 5 

she had never heard of Sir Galahad. I realized with 
a pang the truth of the line of poetry that speaks 
of "those familiar, now unfamiliar knights that 
sought the Grail." I left the Knights of the Round 
Table for history: she didn't know who Charle- 
magne was. 

She didn't know who Charlemagne was! And she 
had never heard of Alexander the Great; her class 
had "had Rome," but she didn't remember anything 
about Julius Caesar, though she knew his name. I 
asked her about Hector and Achilles: she had heard 
the name Hector, but didn't know who he was; she 
had never heard of "that other one." 

I remembered the college freshman who, when 
I had asked her about "They that take the sword 
shall perish with the sword," had answered: "It's 
Shakespeare, I think"; and the rest of the class 
hadn't even known it was Shakespeare. Nobody in 
the class had known the difference between faith 
and works. And how shocked they had all been — 
the Presbyterians especially — at the notion of pre- 

But all these, except for the question of where E 
comes in the alphabet, had been questions of litera- 
ture, theology, and European history; maybe there 
are more important things for students to know. 
The little girl who didn't know who Charlemagne 
was had been taught, I found, to conduct a meeting, 
to nominate, and to second nominations; she had 
been taught — I thought this, though far-fetched, 
truly imaginative — the right sort of story to tell an 

2 5 The Taste of the Age 

eighteen-months-old baby; and she had learned in 
her Domestic Science class to bake a date-pudding, 
to make a dirndl skirt, and from the remnants of 
the cloth to make a drawstring carryall. She could 
not tell me who Charlemagne was, it is true, but if 
I were an eighteen-months-old baby I could go to 
her and be sure of having her tell me the right sort 
of story. I felt a senseless depression at this; and 
thought, to alleviate it, of the date-pudding she 
would be able to bake me. 

I said to myself about her, as I was getting into 
the habit of saying about each new eighth-grade 
girl I talked to: "She must be an exception"; pretty 
soon I was saying: "She must be an exception!" If 
I had said this to her teacher she would have re- 
plied: "Exception indeed! She's a nice, normal, 
well-adjusted girl. She's one of the drum-majorettes 
and she's Vice-President of the Student Body; she's 
had two short stories in the school magazine and 
she made her own formal for the Sadie Hawkins 
dance. She's an exceptionally normal girl!" And 
what could I have answered? "But she doesn't 
know who Charlemagne was"? You can see how 
ridiculous that would have sounded. 

How many people cared whether or not she 
knew who Charlemagne was? How much good 
would knowing who Charlemagne was ever do 
her? Could you make a dirndl out of Charlemagne? 
make, even, a drawstring carryall? There was a 
chance — one chance in a hundred million — that 

The Taste of the Age -y y 

someday, on a quiz program on the radio, someone 
would ask her who Charlemagne was. If she knew 
the audience would applaud in wonder, and the an- 
nouncer would give her a refrigerator; if she didn't 
know the audience would groan in sympathy, and 
the announcer would give her a dozen cartons of 
soap-powder. Euclid, I believe, once gave a penny 
to a student who asked: "What good will studying 
geometry do me?" — studying geometry made him 
a penny. But knowing who Charlemagne was 
would in all probability never make her a penny. 
Another of the eighth-grade girls had shown me 
her Reader. All the eighth-grade students of several 
states use it; it is named Adventures for Readers. 
It has in it, just as Readers used to have in them, 
The Man Without a Country and The Legend of 
Sleepy Hollow and Evangeline, and the preface to 
Adventures for Readers says about their being 
there: "The competition of movies and radios has 
reduced the time young children spend with books. 
It is no longer supposed, as it once was, that read- 
ing skills are fully developed at the end of the sixth 
grade . . . Included are The Man Without a 
Country, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and 
Evangeline. These longer selections were once in 
every eighth grade reading book. They have disap- 
peared because in the original they are far too diffi- 
cult for eighth grade readers. Yet, they are never 
presented for other years. If they are not read in 
the eighth grade, they are not read at all. In their 

<, g The Taste of the Age 

simplified form they are once more available to 
young people to become a part of their background 
and experience." 

I thought that in the next edition of Adventures 
for Readers the editors would have to substitute for 
the phrase the competition of movies and radios, 
the phrase the competition of movies, radios, and 
television: I thought of this thought for some 
time. But when I thought of Longfellow's being in 
the original far too difficult for eighth-grade stu- 
dents, I — I did not know what to think. How much 
more difficult everything is than it used to be! 

I remembered a letter, one about difficult writ- 
ers, that I had read in The Saturday Review. The 
letter said: "I have been wondering when some- 
body with an established reputation in the field of 
letters would stand tiptoe and slap these unintelligi- 
bles in the face. Now I hope the publishers will 
wake up and throw the whole egotistical, sophist 
lot of them down the drain. I hope that fifty years 
from now nobody will remember that Joyce or 
Stein or James or Proust or Mann ever lived." 

I knew that such feelings are not peculiar to our 
own place or age. Once while looking at an exhibi- 
tion of Victorian posters and paintings and news- 
papers and needlework, I had read a page of the 
London Times, printed in the year 185 1, that had 
on it a review of a new book by Alfred Tennyson. 
After several sentences about what was wrong with 
this book, the reviewer said: "xVnother fault is not 
particular to In Memoriam; it runs through all Air. 

The Taste of the Age -> g 

Tennyson's poetry — we allude to his obscurity." 
And yet the reviewer would not have alluded to 
Longfellow's obscurity; those Victorians for whom 
everything else was too difficult still understood and 
delighted in Longfellow. But Tennyson had been 
too obscure for some of them, just as Longfellow 
was getting to be too obscure for some of us, as our 
"reading skills" got less and less "fully developed." 

This better-humored writer of the London 
Times had not hoped that in fifty years nobody 
would remember that Tennyson had ever lived; and 
this is fortunate, since he would not have got his 
wish. But I thought that the writer to The Saturday 
Review might well get, might already be getting, a 
part of his wish. How many people there were 
all around him who did not remember — who in- 
deed had never learned — that Proust or James or 
Mann or Joyce had ever lived! How many of 
them there were, and how many more of their chil- 
dren there were, who did not remember — who in- 
deed had never learned — that Jonah or King Arthur 
or Galahad or Charlemagne had ever lived! And 
in the end all of us would die, and not know, then, 
that anybody had ever lived: and the writer to The 
Saturday Review would have got not part of his 
wish but all of it. 

And if, in the meantime, some people grieved to 
think of so much gone and so much more to go, 
they were the exception. Or, rather, the exceptions: 
millions and millions — tens of millions, even — of 
exceptions. There were enough exceptions to make 

. The Taste of the Age 

a good-sized country; I thought, with pleasure, of 
walking through the streets of that country and 
having the children tell me who Charlemagne was. 

I decided not to think of Charlemagne any 
more, and turned my eyes from my absurd vision 
of the white-bearded king trying to learn to read, 
running his big finger slowly along under the words 
. . . My samples weren't really random, I knew; 
I was letting myself go, being exceptionally unjust 
to that exceptionally normal girl and the school 
that had helped to make her so. She was being given 
an education suitable for the world she was to use 
it in; my quarrel was not so much with her educa- 
tion as with her world, and our quarrels with the 
world are like our quarrels with God: no matter 
how right we are, we are wrong. But who wants 
to be right all the time? I thought, smiling; and 
said goodbye to Charlemagne with the same smile. 

Instead of thinking, I looked at The New York 
Times Book Review; there in the midst of so many 
books, I could surely forget that some people 
don't read any. And after all, as Rilke says in one of 
his books, we are — some of us are — beaten at/By 
books as if by perpetual bells; we can well, as he 
bids us, rejoice /When between two books the sky 
shines to you, silent. In the beginning was the Word, 
and man has made books of it. 

I read quietly along, but the review I was read- 
ing was continued on page 47; and as I was turning 
to page 47 I came to an advertisement, a two-page 
advertisement of the Revised Standard Version of 

The Taste of the Age * j 

the Bible. It was a sober, careful, authorized sort 
of advertisement, with many testimonials of clergy- 
men, but it was, truly, an advertisement. It said: 

"In these anxious days, the Bible offers a prac- 
tical antidote for sorrow, cynicism, and despair. But 
the King James version is often difficult reading. 

"If you have too seldom opened your Bible be- 
cause the way it is written makes it hard for you to 
understand, the Revised Standard Version can 
bring you an exciting new experience. 

"Here is a Bible so enjoyable you find you pick 
it up twice as often ..." 

Tennyson and Longfellow and the Bible — what 
was there that wasn't difficult reading? And a few 
days before that I had torn out of the paper — I got 
it and read it again, and it was hard for me to read 
it — a Gallup Poll that began: "Although the United 
States has the highest level of formal education in 
the world, fewer people here read books than in 
any other major democracy." It didn't compare us 
with minor autocracies, which are probably a lot 
worse. It went on to say that "fewer than one adult 
American in every five was found to be reading a 
book at the time of the survey. [Twenty years ago, 
29% were found to be reading a book; today only 
17% are.] In England, where the typical citizen has 
far less formal schooling than the typical citizen 
here, nearly three times as many read books. Even 
among American college graduates fewer than half 
read books." 

It went on and on; I was so tired that, as I read, 

The Taste of the Age 

the phrase read books kept beating in my brain, and 
getting mixed up with Charlemagne: compared to 
other major monarchs, I thought sleepily, fewer 
than one-fifth of Charlemagne reads books. I read 
on as best as I could, but I thought of the preface 
to Adventures for Readers, and the letter to The 
Saturday Review, and the advertisement in The 
New York Times Book Review, and the highest 
level of formal education in the world, and they all 
went around and around in my head and said to me 
an advertisement named Adventures for Non- 

"In these anxious days, reading books offers a 
practical antidote to sorrow, cynicism, and despair. 
But books are often, in the original, difficult reading. 

"If you have too seldom opened books because 
the way they are written makes them hard for you 
to understand, our Revised Standard Versions of 
books, in their simplified, televised form, can bring 
you an exciting new experience. 

"Here are books so enjoyable you find you turn 
them on twice as often." 

I shook myself; I was dreaming. As I went to 
bed the words of the eighth-grade class's teacher, 
when the class got to Evangeline, kept echoing in 
my ears: "We're coming to a long poem now, boys 
and girls. Now don't be babies and start counting 
the pages." I lay there like a baby, counting the 
pages over and over, counting the pages. 

The Schools of Yesteryear 
(A One-Sided Dialogue) 

uncle wadsworth ( a deep, slightly grained or cor- 
rugated, com\ or table-sounding voice, accom- 
panied by an accordion): School days, school 
days, dear old golden rule — 

alvin (Alum's voice is young) : Stop, Uncle Wads- 

uncle wadsworth: Why should I stop, Alvin boy? 

alvin: Because it isn't so, Uncle Wadsworth. (With 
scorn.) Dear old golden rule days! That's just 
nostalgia, just sentimentality. The man that 
wrote that song was just too old to remember 
what it was really like. Why, kids hated school 
in those days — they used to play hookey all the 
time. It's different now. Children like to go to 
school now. 

uncle wadsworth: Finished, Alvin boy? 

alvin: Finished, Uncle Wadsworth. 

uncle wadsworth: School days, school days, dear 
old golden rule days, Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rith- 
metic, Taught to — 


a a The Schools of Yesteryear 

alvix: Stop, Uncle Wadsworth! 

uncle wadsworth: Why should I stop this time, 
Alvin boy? 

alvix: Reading and writing and arithmetic! What 
a curriculum! Why, it sounds like it was invented 
by an illiterate. How could a curriculum like 
that prepare you for life? No civics, no social 
studies, no hygiene; no home economics, no 
manual training, no physical education! And 
extra-curricular activities — where were they? 

uncle wadsworth: Where indeed? Where are the 
extra-curricular activities of yesteryear? Shall I 
go on, Alvin boy? 

alvix: Go ahead, Uncle Wadsworth. 

uxcle wadsworth: School days, school days, dear 
old golden rule days, Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rith- 
metic, Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick — 

alvix: Stop! Stop! Stop, Uncle Wadsworth! (He 
pants with emotion.) Honestly, Uncle, I don't 
see how you can bear to say it. Taught to the 
tune of a hickory stick/ . . . Imagine having to 
beat poor little children with a stick! Thank God 
those dark old days of ignorance and fear and 
compulsion are over, and we just appeal to the 
child's better nature, and get him to adjust, and 
try to make him see that what he likes to do is 
what we want him to do. 

uxcle wadsworth: Finished, Alvin boy? 

alvix: Finished, Uncle Wadsworth. 

uxcle wadsworth: Well, so am I. I can't seem to 

The Schools of Yesteryear a? 

get going in this song — every fifty yards I get 
a puncture and have to stop for air. You go on 
for a while and let me interrupt you. Go ahead, 

alvin: Go ahead where? 

uncle wadsworth: Go ahead about those dark old 
days of ignorance and fear and compulsion. It 
makes my flesh creep — and I'm just like the fat 
boy, I like to have my flesh creep. 

alvin: What fat boy? 

uncle wadsworth: The one in Pickwick Papers. 
(Silence from Alvin.) You know, Pickwick Pa- 
pers. (Silence from Alvin.) It's a book, son — 
a book by Charles Dickens. Ever read any Dick- 

alvin: Oh, sure, sure. I read The Tale of Two 
Cities in high school. And Oliver Twist — well, 
really I didn't read it exactly, I read it in Illus- 
trated Classics. And I saw Great Expectations 
in the movies. 

uncle wadsworth: Why, you and Dickens are old 
friends. But go on about the — the schools of yes- 

alvin: Well, I will, Uncle Wadsworth. After all, 
it's only because I was lucky enough to be born 
now that I didn't have to go to one of those 
schools myself. I can just see myself trudging to 
school barefooted in my overalls — because they 
didn't even have school buses then, you know — 

uncle wadsworth: Not a one! If a school bus had 

a ft The Schools of Yesteryear 

come for me I'd have thought it was a patrol 
wagon someone had painted orange for Hal- 

alvin: Well, there I am trudging along, and I'm 
not only trudging, I'm limping, 

uncle wadsworth: Stub your toe? 

alvin (with bitter irony): Stub my toe! I'm limp- 
ing because I'm sore — sore all over, where the 
teacher beat me. 

uncle wadsworth: All over isn't where the teacher 
beat you, Alvin boy — I know. 

alvin: All right, all right! And when I get to the 
school is it the Consolidated School? Is there a 
lunch-room and a 'chute-the-'chute and a jungle- 
gym? Is it — is it like schools ought to be? Uh- 
uh! That school has one room, and it's red. 

uncle wadsworth: You mean that even in those 
days the Communists — 

alvin: No, no, not Red, red! Red like a barn. And 
when I get inside, the teacher is an old maid that 
looks like a broomstick, or else a man that looks 
like a — that looks like Ichabod Crane. And then 
this Crane-type teacher says to me, real 
stern: "Alvin McKinley, stand up! Are you 
aware, Alvin, that it is three minutes past seven?" 

uncle wadsworth: Three minutes past seven! 
What on earth are you and Ichabod Crane doing 
in school at that ungodly hour? 

alvin: That's when school starts then! Or six, 
maybe. . . . Then he says, pointing his finger at 
me in a terrible voice: "Three minutes tardy! 

The Schools of Yesteryear aj 

And what, Alvin, what did I warn you would 
happen to you if you ever again were so much 
as one minute tardy? What did I tell you that 
I would do to you?" And I say in a little meek 
voice, because I'm scared, I say: "Whip me." And 
he says: "YES, WHIP YOU!" And I say— 

uncle wadsworth: You say, "Oh, don't whip pore 
Uncle Tom, massa! If only you won't whip him 
he won't never — " 

alvin: Oh, stop it, Uncle Wadsworth! That's not 
what I say at all, and you know it. How can I tell 
about the schools of yesteryear if you won't be 
serious? Well, anyway, he says to me: "Have you 
anything to say for yourself?" And I say, "Please, 
Mr. Crane, it was four miles, and I had the cows 
to milk, and Ma was sick and I had to help Sister 
cook the hoe-cakes — " 

uncle wadsworth: Hoe-cakes! {With slow rel- 
ish.) Hoe-cakes. . . . Why, I haven't had any 
hoe-cakes since. . . . How'd you hear about 
hoe-cakes, Alvin boy? 

alvin: Uncle Wadsworth, if you keep interrupting 
me about irrevu — irrelevancies, how can I get 

uncle wadsworth: I apologize, Alvin; I am silent, 

alvin: Then he looks at me and he smiles like — 
like somebody in Dick Tracy, and he says: "Al- 
vin, spare your breath" And then he walks over 
to the corner next to the stove, and do you know 
what's in the corner? 

48 The Schools of Yesteryear 

uncle wads worth: What's in the corner? 

alvin: Sticks. Sticks of every size. Hundreds of 
sticks. And then he reaches down and takes the 
biggest one and — and — 

uncle wadsworth: And — and — 

alvin: And he beats me. 

uncle wadsworth (with a big sigh): The Lord 
be praised! For a minute I was afraid he was go- 
ing to burn you at the stake. But go ahead, Alvin. 

alvin: Go ahead? 

uncle wadsworth: It's still just ten minutes after 
seven. Tell me about your day — your school-day 
— your dear old golden rule day. 

alvin: Well, then he says: "Take your Readers!" 
And I look around and everybody in the room, 
from little kids just six years old with their front 
teeth out to great big ones, grown men prac- 
tically that look like they ought to be on the 
Chicago Bears — everybody in the room picks up 
the same book and they all start reading aloud 
out of the — McGuffey Reader! Ha-ha-ha! The 
McGuffey Reader! 

uncle wadsworth: And why, Alvin, do you 

alvin: Because it's funny, that's why! The McGuf- 
fey Reader! 

uncle wadsworth: Have you ever seen a McGuf- 
fey Reader, Alvin? 

alvin: How could I of, Uncle Wadsworth? I didn't 
go to school back in those days. 

The Schools of Yesteryear aq 

uncle wadsworth: Your account was so vivid that 
for a moment I forgot. . . . You've never seen 
such a Reader. Well, I have. 

alvin: Oh, sure — you used one in school yourself, 
didn't you? 

uncle wadsworth: No, Alvin — strange as it seems, 
I did not; nor did I ever shake the hand of Rob- 
ert E. Lee, nor did I fight in the War of 1812, 
nor did I get to see Adam and Eve and the Ser- 
pent. My father used a McGuffey Reader; I did 

alvin: I'm sorry, Uncle Wadsworth. 

uncle wadsworth: No need, no need. . . . Alvin, 
if you will go over to the bookcase and reach 
into the right hand corner of the top shelf, you 
will find a book — a faded, dusty, red-brown 

alvin: Here it is. It's all worn, and there're gold 
letters on the back, and it says Appletons' Fifth 

uncle wadsworth: Exactly. Appletons* Fifth 
Reader. Week before last, at an antique-dealer's 
over near Hillsboro, side by side with a glass 
brandy-flask bearing the features of the Father of 
our Country, George Washington, I found this 

alvin: Look how yellow the paper is! And brown 
spots all over it. . . . Gee, they must have used 
it all over the country; it says New York, Bos- 
ton, and Chicago, 1 880, and it was printed in 1 878 

r o The Schools of Yesteryear 

and 1879 too, and — look at the picture across 
from it, it's one of those old engravings. I guess 
they didn't have photographs in those days. 

uncle wadsworth: Guess again, Alvin boy. And 
what is the subject of this old engraving? 

alvin: A girl with a bucket, and back behind her 
somebody's plowing, and it's dawn. And there's 
some poetry underneath. 

uncle wadsworth: 

While the plo r cjman near at hand 
Whistles o'er the furrowed land 
And the milkmaid singeth blithe. . . . 

alvin: That's right! You mean to say you memo- 
rized it? 

uncle wadsworth: Fifty years ago, Alvin. Doesn't 
any of it have a — a familiar ring? 

alvin: Well, to tell the truth, Uncle Wads- 
worth. . . . 

uncle wadsworth: What does it say in small let- 
ters down at the right-hand corner of the page? 

alvin: It says — "U Allegro, page 420." V Allegro! 
Sure! sure! Why, I read it in sophomore English. 
We spent two whole days on that poem and on 
— you know, that other one that goes with it. 
They're by John Milton. 

uncle wadsworth: Yes, Milton. And in that 
same — 

alvin: But Uncle Wadsworth, you don't mean to 
say they had Milton in a Fifth Reader! Why, we 
were sophomores in college, and there were two 
football players that were juniors, and believe 

The Schools of Yesteryear r j 

me, it was all Dr. Taylor could do to get us 
through that poem. How could little kids in the 
fifth grade read Milton? 

uncle wadsworth: Sit down, Alvin. Do you re- 
member reading, at about the same time you read 

"L'Allegro," a poem called "Elegy Written in a 
Country Churchyard"? 

alvin: Well — 

uncle wadsworth: Gray's "Elegy"? 

alvin: Say me some, Uncle Wadsworth. 

uncle wadsworth: 

Full many a gem of purest ray serene 
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear; 
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen 
And waste its sweetness on the desert air. 

alvin: Sure, I remember that one. I liked that one. 

uncle wadsworth: Well, Alvin, that very poem — 

alvin: Oh no, Uncle Wadsworth! You're not going 
to tell me that that poem was in a Fifth Reader! 

uncle wadsworth: No, Alvin, I am not. I want 
you to ... to steel yourself. That poem was 
not in Appletons' Fifth Reader, that poem was 
in Appletons' Fourth Reader. {Alvin groans in 
awe.) And Wordsworth — you studied Words- 
worth in your sophomore English? 

alvin (lifelessly): Uh-huh. 

uncle wadsworth: There are four of Words- 
worth's poems in Appletons' Fourth Reader. 

alvin: I guess in the Sixth Reader they were read- 
ing Einstein. 

uncle wadsworth: No, but in the Fifth Reader — 

r 2 The Schools of Yesteryear 

run your eye down the table of contents, Alvin 
— there are selections by Addison, Bishop 
Berkeley, Bunyan, Byron, Coleridge, Carlyle, 
Cervantes, Coleridge — the whole Ancient Mari- 
ner, Alvin — Defoe, De Quincy, Dickens, Emer- 
son, Fielding, Hawthorne, George Herbert, 
Hazlitt, Jefferson, Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare, 
Shelley, Sterne, Swift, Tennyson, Thoreau, Mark 
Twain — 

alvin: It's hard to believe. 

uncle wadsworth: And there are also selections 
from simpler writers — 

alvin: Yeah, simple ones — 

uncle wadsworth: Simpler writers such as Scott, 
Burns, Longfellow, Cooper, Audubon, Poe, Oli- 
ver Wendell Holmes, Benjamin Franklin, Wash- 
ington Irving. Alvin, have you ever — at college 
perhaps — ever read anything by Goethe? 

alvin: I don't believe so. 

uncle wadsworth: Well, Alvin boy, if after milk- 
ing the cow and baking the hoe-cakes, you had 
limped four miles barefoot to that one-room red 
schoolhouse of yours, and had been beaten by 
that Ichabod Crane of a teacher, you would still 
have got to read, in your Appletons' Fifth 
Reader, one poem and five pages of prose from 
Goethe's immortal Wilheim Meister. ... As it 
is you don't limp, nobody beats you, and you 
read — whom do you read, Alvin? Tell me some 
of the writers you read in the fifth grade. 

alvin: I don't exactly remember their names. 

The Schools of Yesteryear r <, 

uncle wadsworth: There in the bookcase — that 
red and yellow and black book there — is the Fifth 
Reader of today. Days and Deeds, it is called; it 
is, I believe, the most popular Fifth Reader in 
the country. That's right, hand it over. Here on 
page 3 is its table of contents; come, Alvin, read 
out to me the names of the writers from whom 
the children of today get their knowledge of life 
and literature. 

alvin: Well, the first one's Fletcher D. Slater, and 
then Nora Burglon, and Sterling North and 
Ruth G. Plowhead— 

uncle wadsworth: Plowhead? 

alvin: That's what it says. Then Ruth E. Kennell, 
Gertrude Robinson, Philip A. Rollins, J. Walker 
McSpadden, Merlin M. — 

uncle wadsworth: You're sure you're not making 
up some of these names? 

alvin: How could I? Merlin M. Taylor, Sanford 
Tousey, Gladys M. Wick, Marie Barton, Mar- 
garet Leighton, Edward C. James — no, Janes, 
Leonard K. Smith, P. L. Travers, Esther Shep- 
herd, James C. Bowman, Dr. Seuss — 

uncle wadsworth: Land! Land! 

alvin: No, Seuss. Seuss. 

uncle wadsworth: I speak figuratively. I mean 
that here, at last, is a name I recognize, the name 
of a well-known humorist and cartoonist. 

alvin: Oh. Then there's Armstrong Sperry, 
Myra M. Dodds, Alden G. Stevens, Lavinia R. 
Davis, Lucy M. Crockett, Raymond Jannson, 

^4 The Schools of Yesteryear 

Hubert Evans, Ruth E. Tanner, Three Boy 
Scouts — 

uncle wadsworth: Three Boy Scouts. An Indian, 
no doubt. . . . Never heard of him. 

alvin: Heard of them. There're three of them. 

uncle wadsworth: Three? Thirty! Three hun- 
dred! They're all Boy Scouts! Alvin, these are 
names only a mother could love — names only a 
mother would know. That they are honest names, 
respected names, the names of worthy citizens, I 
have not the slightest doubt; but when I reflect 
that it is these names that have replaced those of 
Goethe, of Shakespeare, of Cervantes, of Dr. 
Johnson — of all the other great and good writers 
of the Appleton Fifth Reader — when I think of 
this, Alvin, I am confused, I am dismayed, I am 

alvin: Uncle Wadsworth, you've got all red in the 

uncle wadsworth: There are also in the Apple- 
ton Fifth Reader, Alvin, elaborate analyses of the 
style, rhetoric, and organization of the literary 
works included; penetrating discussions of their 
logic; highly technical instructions for reading 
them aloud in the most effective way; discus- 
sions of etymology, spelling, pronunciation, the 
general development of the English language. 
And, Alvin, these are not written in the insipid 
baby-talk thought appropriate for children to- 
day. Here, in a paragraph about Don Quixote, 
is one of the Fifth Reader's typical discussions of 

The Schools of Yesteryear r c 

logic: "The question here involved is the old 
sophism of Eubulides. ... Is a man a liar who 
says that he tells lies? If he is, then he does not 
tell lies; and if he does not tell lies, is he a liar? 
If not, then is not his assertion a lie? ... It will 
be noticed that the perplexity comes from the 
fact of self -relation: the one assertion relates to 
another assertion of the same person; and the one 
assertion being conditioned upon the other, the 
difficulty arises. It is the question of self-contra- 
diction — of two mutually contradictory state- 
ments, one must be false. It is a sophism, but one 
that continually occurs among unsophisticated 
reasoners. It is also a practical sophism, for it is 
continually being acted in the world around us 
(e.g., a person seeks pleasure by such means that, 
while he enjoys himself, he undermines his health, 
or sins against his conscience, and thus draws in- 
evitably on him physical suffering and an uneasy 
soul). It is therefore well worthy of study in its 
purely logical form. . . . All universal negative 
assertions (and a lie is a negation) are liable to 
involve the assertion itself in self-contradiction." 

alvin: Ohhhhh. . . . Ohhhhh. ... If I'd gone to 
school then, I'd have known what that means in 
the fifth grade ? 

uncle wadsworth: You'd have known it or you 
never would have got into the sixth grade. 

alvin: Then I'd be the oldest settler in the fifth 
grade, because I'm a junior in college and I still 
can't understand it. 

r 5 The Schools of Yesteryear 

uncle wadsworth: Yes, it's surprising what those 
fifth-graders were expected to know. The Reader 
contains a little essay called "Hidden Beauties 
of Classic Authors," by a writer named N. P. 

alvin: N. P. Willis. ... I guess he was Ruth G. 
Plowhead's grandpa. 

uncle wadsworth: Yes, he isn't exactly a classic 
author himself. He tells you how he fell in love 
with Beaumont and Fletcher, and the Faerie 
Queene, and Comus, and The Rape of the Lock; 
he says that he knows "no more exquisite sensa- 
tion than this warming of the heart to an old 
author; and it seems to me that the most delicious 
portion of intellectual existence is the brief pe- 
riod in which, one by one, the great minds of 
old are admitted with all their time-mellowed 
worth to the affections." Well, at the end of the 
essay there're some questions; what do you think 
is the first thing they ask those fifth-graders? 

alvin: What? 

uncle wadsworth: "Have you read Milton's 
Comus? — Pope's Rape of the Lock?" 

alvin: Now Uncle Wadsworth, you've got to ad- 
mit that that's a terrible thing to ask a little boy 
in the fifth grade. 

uncle wadsworth: / think it's a terrible thing. But 
they didn't. As a matter of fact, / think it's a ter- 
rible thing to ask a big boy in his junior year in 
college. How about it, Alvin? Have you read 
Milton's Comus? Pope's Rape of the Lock? 

The Schools of Yesteryear c y 

alvin: Well, to tell you the truth, Uncle Wads- 
worth — 

uncle wadsworth: Tell ahead. 

alvin: Well, to — well — well, it just isn't the sort 
of question you can answer yes or no. I may 
have read Milton's Comus; it's the kind of thing 
we read hundreds of things like in our sophomore 
survey course; I guess the chances are ten to one 
I read it, and a year ago I could have told you 
for certain whether or not I read it, but right 
now all I can say is if I didn't read it, it would 
surprise me a lot. 

uncle wadsworth: And The Rape of the Lock? 

alvin: No. 

uncle wadsworth: No? You mean you know you 
didn't read it? 

alvin: Uh-huh. 

uncle wadsworth: How do you know? 

alvin: I — 

uncle wadsworth: Go on, go on. 

alvin: Well Uncle Wadsworth, it seems to me that 
a book with a title like that, if I'd read it I'd re- 
member it. 

uncle wadsworth: Alvin, if you weren't my own 
nephew I'd — I'd be proud to have invented you. 
. . . Here's another of those poems, the kind that 
you read in your sophomore year in college and 
that your great-grandfather read in the Fifth 
Reader. It's by George Herbert, the great reli- 
gious poet George Herbert. Read it to me, Alvin; 
and when you've read it, tell me what it means. 

^ g The Schools of Yesteryear 

alvin (in careful singsong): Sunday. By George 

O Day most calm, most bright! 
The fruit of this, the next 'world's bud; 
The endorsement of supreme delight, 
Writ by a Friend, and with his blood; 
The couch of Time: Care's calm and bay: 
The week were dark but for thy light; 
Thy torch doth show the way. 

The other days and thou 
Make up one man, whose face thou art, 
Knocking at heaven with thy brow: 
The working-days are the back part; 
The burden of the week lies there; 
Making the whole to stoop and bow, 
Till thy release appear. 

Man had — man had — 

Uncle Wadsworth, I'm all mixed up. I've been 
all mixed up. And if you ask me that fifth grade 
was mixed up too. 

uncle wadsworth: Where did you first begin to 
feel confused? 

alvin: I never did not feel confused. 

uncle wadsworth: Surely the first line — 

alvin: Yeah. Yeah. The first one was all right. O 
Day most calm, most bright! That means it's 
Sunday, and it's all calm and bright, the weather's 
all calm and bright. Then it says, the fruit of this. 
. . . The fruit of this. What's the fruit of this? 

The Schools of Yesteryear * q 

uncle wadsworth: The fruit of this, the next 
world's bud. World is understood. 

alvin: Understood? 

uncle wadsworth: Yes. The fruit of this world 
and the bud of the next world. 

alvin: Oh. . . . The endorsement of supreme de- 
light. (Pauses.) The endorsement of supreme de- 
light. . . . Uncle Wadsworth, a line like that — 
you've got to admit a line like that's obscure. 

uncle wadsworth: It means that — it says that 
Sunday is like the endorsement of a check or 
note; because of the endorsement this supreme 
delight, our salvation, is negotiable, we can 
cash it. 

alvin: Oh. . . . Like endorsing a check. Writ by a 
Friend — Friend's got a capital F. ... Oh! That 
means it was written by a Quaker. ( Uncle Wads- 
worth laughs.) But that's what it does mean. We 
live on a road named the Friendly Road because 
it goes to a Quaker church. If Friend doesn't 
mean Quaker why's it got a capital F? 

uncle wadsworth: Writ by a Friend, and with his 
blood. If you're talking about church and Sunday 
and the next world, and mention a Friend who 
has written something with his blood, who is that 
Friend, Alvin? 

alvin: Oh. . . . The couch of Time; Care's calm 
and bay. . . . (Pauses.) Uncle Wadsworth, do 
we have to read poetry? 

uncle wadsworth: Of course not, Alvin. Nobody 

^ The Schools of Yesteryear 

else does, why should we? Let's get back to prose. 
Here's the way the Fifth Reader talks about 
climbing a mountain: "Some part of the be- 
holder, even some vital part, seems to escape 
through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. 
... He is more lone than you can imagine. 
There is less of substantial thought and fair un- 
derstanding in him than in the plains where men 
inhabit. His reason is dispersed and shadowy, 
more thin and subtle, like the air. Vast, Titanic, 
inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, 
caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his 
divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the 
plains. She seems to say sternly, Why come ye 
here before your time? . . . Why seek me 
where I have not called you, and then complain 
because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst 
thou freeze, or starve, or shudder thy life away, 
here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my 
ear. "Chaos and ancient Night, I come no spy/ 
With purpose to explore or to disturb/ The 
secrets of your realm — " ' " 

alvtn: Uncle Wadsworth, if the prose is like that, 
I'd just as soon have stayed with the poetry. 
Didn't they have any plain American writers in 
that Fifth Reader? 

uncle wadsworth: Plain American writers? That 
was Thoreau I was reading you. Well, if he's too 
hard, here's what the Fifth Reader has to say 
about him. It's talking about his account of the 
battle between the black ants and the red: "The 

The Schools of Yesteryear 5 1 

style of this piece is an imitation of the heroic 
style of Homer's 'Iliad,' and is properly a 'mock- 
heroic' The intention of the author is two-fold: 
half -seriously endowing the incidents of every- 
day life with epic dignity, in the belief that there 
is nothing mean and trivial to the poet and phi- 
losopher, and that it is the man that adds dignity 
to the occasion, and not the occasion that digni- 
fies the man; half -satirically treating the human 
events alluded to as though they were non-heroic, 
and only fit to be applied to the events of animal 

alvin (wonderingly): Why, it's just like old Tay- 

uncle wadsworth: Professor Taylor would lec- 
ture to you in that style? 

alvin: He'd get going that way, but pretty soon 
he'd see we didn't know what he meant, and then 
he'd talk so we could understand him. . . . Well, 
if the Fifth Reader sounds like that about ants, 
I sure don't want to hear it about scansion and 

uncle wadsworth: But Alvin, wouldn't you like 
to be able to understand it? Don't you wish you'd 
had it in the fifth grade and known what it was 
talking about? 

alvin: Sure, sure! Would I have made old Taylor's 
eyes pop out! All we ever had in the fifth grade 
was Boy Scouts going on hikes, and kids going 
to see their grandmother for Thanksgiving; it 
was easy. 

^2 The Schools of Yesteryear 

uncle wadsworth: And interesting? 

alvin: Nah, it was corny — the same old stuff; how 
can you make stuff like that interesting? 

uncle wadsworth: How indeed? 

alvin: But how did things like Shakespeare and 
Milton and Dickens ever get in a Fifth Reader? 

uncle wadsworth: Alvin, they've always been 
there. Yesterday, here in the United States, those 
things were in the Fifth Reader; today, every- 
where else in the world, those things or then- 
equivalent are in the Fifth Reader; it is only here 
in the United States, today, that the Fifth Reader 
consists of Josie's Home Run, by Ruth G. Plow-, 
head, and A Midnight Lion Hunt, by Three Boy 
Scouts. I read, in a recent best-seller, this sen- 
tence: "For the first time in history Americans 
see their children getting less education than 
they got themselves." That may be; and for the 
first time in history Americans see a book on why 
their children can't read becoming a best-seller, 
being serialized in newspapers across the nation. 
Alvin, about school-buildings, health, lunches, 
civic responsibility, kindness, good humor, spon- 
taneity, we have nothing to learn from the 
schools of the past; but about reading, with pleas- 
ure and understanding, the best that has been 
thought and said in the world — about that we. 
have much to learn. The child who reads and 
understands the Appleton Fifth Reader is well on 
the way to becoming an educated, cultivated hu- 
man being — and if he has to do it sitting in a one- 

The Schools of Yesteryear 5 3 

room schoolhouse, if he has to do it sitting on a 
hollow log, he's better off than a boy sitting in 
the Pentagon reading Days and Deeds, There's a 
jug of cider in the ice-box, Alvin; you get it, I'll 
get the glasses; and let's drink a toast to — 

alvin: To the Apple ton Fifth Reader! long may 
she read! {They drink.) 

uncle wadsworth: And now, Alvin, let us con- 
clude the meeting with a song. 

alvin: What song? 

uncle wadsworth: What song? Alvin, can you 
ask? Start us off, Alvin! 

alvin: School days, school days. . . . 

both: Dear old golden rule days. . . . 

alvin: Louder, Uncle Wadsworth, louder! 

both: Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic 

Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick. . . . 

{Alvin and Uncle Wadsworth and the accordion 
disappear into the distance.) 

A Sad Heart 
at the Supermarket 

Th e Emperor Augustus would sometimes say 
to his Senate: "Words fail me, my Lords; 
nothing I can say could possibly indicate the depth 
of my feelings in this matter." But in this matter of 
mass culture, the mass media, I am speaking not as 
an emperor but as a fool, a suffering, complaining, 
helplessly non-conforming poet-or-artist-of-a-sort, 
far off at the obsolescent rear of things; what I say 
will indicate the depth of my feelings and the shal- 
lowness and one-sidedness of my thoughts. If those 
English lyric poets who went mad during the eight- 
eenth century had told you why the Age of En- 
lightenment was driving them crazy, it would have 
had a kind of documentary interest: what I say 
may have a kind of documentary interest. The toad 
beneath the harrow knows/ Exactly where each 
tooth-point goes: if you tell me that the field is be- 
ing harrowed to grow grain for bread, and to cre- 
ate a world in which there will be no more famines, 
or toads either, I will say: "I know"; but let me 

6 4 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 6$ 

tell you where the tooth-points go, and what the 
harrow looks like from below. 

Advertising men, businessmen speak continually 
of media or the media or the mass media. One of 
their trade journals is named, simply, Media. It is an 
impressive word: one imagines Mephistopheles of- 
fering Faust media that no man has ever known; 
one feels, while the word is in one's ear, that ab- 
stract, overmastering powers, of a scale and inten- 
sity unimagined yesterday, are being offered one by 
the technicians who discovered and control them — 
offered, and at a price. The word has the clear fatal 
ring of that new world whose space we occupy so 
luxuriously and precariously; the world that pro- 
duces mink stoles, rockabilly records, and tactical 
nuclear weapons by the million; the world that 
Attila, Galileo, Hansel and Gretel never knew. 

And yet, it's only the plural of medium. "Me- 
dium," says the dictionary, "that which lies in the 
middle; hence, middle condition or degree ... A 
substance through which a force acts or an effect is 
transmitted . . . That through or by which any- 
thing is accomplished; as, an advertising medium 
. Biol. A nutritive mixture or substance, as 
broth, gelatin, agar, for cultivating bacteria, fungi, 


Let us name our trade journal The Medium. For 
all these media— television, radio, movies, newspa- 
pers, magazines, and the rest— are a single medium, 
in whose depths we are all being cultivated. This 
Medium is of middle condition or degree, mediocre; 

(56 A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

it lies in the middle of everything, between a man 
and his neighbor, his wife, his child, his self; it, more 
than anything else, is the substance through which 
the forces of our society act upon us, and make us 
into what our society needs. 

And what does it need? For us to need. 

Oh, it needs for us to do or be many things: 
workers, technicians, executives, soldiers, house- 
wives. But first of all, last of all, it needs for us to 
be buyers; consumers; beings who want much and 
will want more — who want consistently and in- 
satiably. Find some spell to make us turn away from 
the stoles, the records, and the weapons, and our 
world will change into something to us unimagina- 
ble. Find some spell to make us see that the prod- 
uct or service that yesterday was an unthinkable 
luxury today is an inexorable necessity, and our 
world will go on. It is the Medium which casts 
this spell — which is this spell. As we look at the 
television set, listen to the radio, read the maga- 
zines, the frontier of necessity is always being 
pushed forward. The Medium shows us what our 
new needs are — how often, without it, we should 
not have known! — and it shows us how they can be 
satisfied: they can be satisfied by buying some- 
thing. The act of buying something is at the root of 
our world; if anyone wishes to paint the genesis of 
things in our society, he will paint a picture of God 
holding out to Adam a check-book or credit card or 

But how quickly our poor naked Adam is turned 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 6 J 

into a consumer, is linked to others by the great 
chain of buying! 

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed: 
Along his infant veins are interfused 
The gravitation and the filial bond 
Of nature that connect him with the world. 

Children of three or four can ask for a brand of 
cereal, sing some soap's commercial; by the time 
that they are twelve or thirteen they are not chil- 
dren but teen-age consumers, interviewed, graphed, 
analyzed. They are well on their way to becoming 
that ideal figure of our culture, the knowledgeable 
consumer. Let me define him: the knowledgeable 
consumer is someone who, when he comes to Wei- 
mar, knows how to buy a Weimaraner. 

Daisy's voice sounded like money; everything 
about the knowledgeable consumer looks like or 
sounds like or feels like money, and informed 
money at that. To live is to consume, to understand 
life is to know what to consume: he has learned to 
understand this, so that his life is a series of choices 

correct ones — among the products and services 

of the world. He is able to choose to consume 
something, of course, only because sometime, 
somewhere, he or someone else produced some- 
thing—but just when or where or what no longer 
seems to us of as much interest. We may still go to 
Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian churches on 
Sunday, but the Protestant ethic of frugal industry, 
of production for its own sake, is gone. 
Production has come to seem to our society not 

68 A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

much more than a condition prior to consumption. 
"The challenge of today," an advertising agency- 
writes, "is to make the consumer raise his level of 
demand." This challenge has been met: the Medium 
has found it easy to make its people feel the continu- 
ally increasing lacks, the many specialized dissatis- 
factions (merging into one great dissatisfaction, 
temporarily assuaged by new purchases) that it 
needs for them to feel. When in some magazine we 
see the Medium at its most nearly perfect, we 
hardly know which half is entertaining and distract- 
ing us, which half making us buy: some advertise- 
ment may be more ingeniously entertaining than 
the text beside it, but it is the text which has made 
us long for a product more passionately. When one 
finishes Holiday or Harper's Bazaar or House and 
Garden or The New Yorker or High Fidelity or 
Road and Track or — but make your own list — 
buying something, going somewhere seems a neces- 
sary completion to the act of reading the magazine. 
Reader, isn't buying or fantasy-buying an impor- 
tant part of your and my emotional life? (If you re- 
ply, No, I'll think of you with bitter envy as more 
than merely human; as deeply un-American.) It is a 
standard joke that when a woman is bored or sad 
she buys something, to cheer herself up; but in 
this respect we are all women together, and can hear 
complacently the reminder of how feminine this 
consumer-world of ours has become. One im- 
agines as a characteristic dialogue of our time an in- 
terview in which someone is asking of a vague gra- 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 69 

cious figure, a kind of Mrs. America: "But while 
you waited for the intercontinental ballistic missiles 
what did you do?" She answers: "I bought things." 
She reminds one of the sentinel at Pompeii— a 
space among ashes, now, but at his post: she too 
did what she was supposed to do. Our society has 
delivered us— most of us— from the bonds of neces- 
sity, so that we no longer struggle to find food to 
keep from starving, clothing and shelter to keep 
from freezing; yet if the ends for which we work 
and of which we dream are only clothes and res- 
taurants and houses, possessions, consumption, how 
have we escaped? — we have exchanged man's old 
bondage for a new voluntary one. It is more than a 
figure of speech to say that the consumer is trained 
for his job of consuming as the factory-worker is 
trained for his job of producing; and the first can be 
a longer, more complicated training, since it is easier 
to teach a man to handle a tool, to read a dial, than 
it is to teach him to ask, always, for a name-brand 
aspirin— to want, someday, a stand-by generator. 

What is that? You don't know? I used not to 
know, but the readers of House Beautiful all know, 
so that now I know. It is the electrical generator 
that stands in the basement of the suburban house- 
owner, shining, silent, till at last one night the lights 
go out, the furnace stops, the freezer's food be- 
gins to — 

Ah, but it's frozen for good, the lights are on for- 
ever; the owner has switched on the stand-by gen- 

70 A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

But you don't see that he really needs the gen- 
erator, you'd rather have seen him buy a second 
car? He has two. A second bathroom? He has four. 
When the People of the Medium doubled every- 
thing, he doubled everything; and now that he's 
gone twice round he will have to wait three years, 
or four, till both are obsolescent — but while he 
waits there are so many new needs that he can sat- 
isfy, so many things a man can buy. "Man wants but 
little here below/ Nor wants that little long," said 
the poet; what a lie! Man wants almost unlimited 
quantities of almost everything, and he wants it till 
the day he dies. 

Sometimes in Life or Look we see a double-page 
photograph of some family standing on the lawn 
among its possessions: station-wagon, swimming- 
pool, power-cruiser, sports-car, tape-recorder, tele- 
vision sets, radios, cameras, power lawn-mower, 
garden tractor, lathe, barbecue-set, sporting equip- 
ment, domestic appliances — all the gleaming, gro- 
tesquely imaginative paraphernalia of its existence. 
It was hard to get everything on two pages, soon it 
will need four. It is like a dream, a child's dream 
before Christmas; yet if the members of the family 
doubt that they are awake, they have only to reach 
out and pinch something. The family seems pale and 
small, a negligible appendage, beside its possessions; 
only a human being would need to ask: "Which 
owns which?" We are fond of saying that some- 
thing is not just something but "a way of life"; this 
too is a way of life — our way, the way. 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket y I 

Emerson, in his spare stony New England, a 
few miles from Walden, could write: "Things are 
in the saddle/ And ride mankind." He could say- 
more now: that they are in the theater and studio, 
and entertain mankind; are in the pulpit and preach 
to mankind. The values of business, in a business so- 
ciety like our own, are reflected in every sphere: 
values which agree with them are reinforced, 
values which disagree are cancelled out or have lip 
service paid to them. In business what sells is good, 
and that's the end of it — that is what good means; 
if the world doesn't beat a path to your door, your 
mouse-trap wasn't better. The values of the Me- 
dium — which is both a popular business itself and 
the cause of popularity in other businesses — are 
business values: money, success, celebrity. If we are 
representative members of our society, the Me- 
dium's values are ours; and even if we are unrep- 
resentative, non-conforming, our hands are — too 
often — subdued to the element they work in, and 
our unconscious expectations are all that we con- 
sciously reject. Darwin said that he always immedi- 
ately wrote down evidence against a theory be- 
cause otherwise, he'd noticed, he would forget it; 
in the same way, we keep forgetting the existence 
of those poor and unknown failures whom we 
might rebelliously love and admire. 

If you're so smart why aren't you rich? is the 
ground-bass of our society, a grumbling and quite 
unanswerable criticism, since the society's non- 
monetary values are directly convertible into 

- 2 A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

money. Celebrity turns into testimonials, lectures, 
directorships, presidencies, the capital gains of an 
autobiography Told To some professional ghost 
who photographs the man's life as Bachrach photo- 
graphs his body. I read in the newspapers a lyric 
and perhaps exaggerated instance of this direct con- 
version of celebrity into money: his son accom- 
panied Adlai Stevenson on a trip to Russia, took 
snapshots of his father, and sold them (to accom- 
pany his father's account of the trip) to Look for 
f 20,000. When Liberace said that his critics' un- 
favorable reviews hurt him so much that he cried all 
the way to the bank, one had to admire the correct- 
ness and penetration of his press-agent's wit — in 
another age, what might not such a man have be- 

Our culture is essentially periodical: we believe 
that all that is deserves to perish and to have some- 
thing else put in its place. We speak of planned ob- 
solescence, but it is more than planned, it is felt; is 
an assumption about the nature of the world. We 
feel that the present is better and more interesting, 
more real, than the past, and that the future will 
be better and more interesting, more real, than the 
present; but, consciously, we do not hold against 
the present its prospective obsolescence. Our stand- 
ards have become to an astonishing degree the 
standards of what is called the world of fashion, 
where mere timeliness — being orange in orange's 
year, violet in violet's — is the value to which all 
other values are reducible. In our society the word 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket y -> 

old-fashioned is so final a condemnation that some- 
one like Norman Vincent Peale can say about 
atheism or agnosticism simply that it is old-fash- 
ioned; the homely recommendation of the phrase 
Give me that good old-time religion has become, 
after a few decades, the conclusive rejection of the 
phrase old-fashioned atheism. 

All this is, at bottom, the opposite of the world 
of the arts, where commercial and scientific prog- 
ress do not exist; where the bone of Homer and 
Mozart and Donatello is there, always, under the 
mere blush of fashion; where the past — the re- 
mote past, even — is responsible for the way that 
we understand, value, and act in, the present. 
(When one reads an abstract expressionist's remark 
that Washington studios are "eighteen months be- 
hind" those of his colleagues in New York, one re- 
alizes something of the terrible power of business 
and fashion over those most overtly hostile to 
them.) An artist's work and life presuppose con- 
tinuing standards, values extended over centuries or 
millenia, a future that is the continuation and modi- 
fication of the past, not its contradiction or irrele- 
vant replacement. He is working for the time that 
wants the best that he can do: the present, he hopes 
— but if not that, the future. If he sees that fewer 
and fewer people are any real audience for the seri- 
ous artists of the past, he will feel that still fewer 
are going to be an audience for the serious artists 
of the present: for those who, willingly or un- 
willingly, sacrifice extrinsic values to intrinsic ones, 

7 . A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

immediate effectiveness to that steady attraction 
which, the artist hopes, true excellence will always 

The past's relation to the artist or man of culture 
is almost the opposite of its relation to the rest of 
our society. To him the present is no more than the 
last ring on the trunk, understandable and valuable 
only in terms of all the earlier rings. The rest of 
our society sees only that great last ring, the en- 
veloping surface of the trunk; what's underneath is 
a disregarded, almost mythical foundation. When 
Northrop Frye writes that "the preoccupation of 
the humanities with the past is sometimes made a 
reproach against them by those who forget that we 
face the past: it may be shadowy, but it is all that is 
there," he is saying what for the artist or man of 
culture is self-evidently true. Yet for the Medium 
and the People of the Medium it is as self-evidently 
false: for them the present— or a past so recent, 
so quick-changing, so soon-disappearing, that it 
might be called the specious present — is all that is 

In the past our culture's body of common knowl- 
edge — its frame of reference, its possibility of com- 
prehensible allusion — changed slowly and superfi- 
cially; the amount added to it or taken away from 
it, in any ten years, was surprisingly small. Now in 
any ten years a surprisingly large proportion of the 
whole is replaced. Most of the information people 
have in common is something that four or five 
years from now they will not even remember hav- 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket y * 

ing known. A newspaper story remarks in astonish- 
ment that television quiz-programs "have proved 
that ordinary citizens can be conversant with such 
esoterica as jazz, opera, the Bible, Shakespeare, po- 
etry, and fisticuffs." You may exclaim: "Esoterica! 
If the Bible and Shakespeare are esoterica, what is 
there that's common knowledge?" The answer, I 
suppose, is that Elfrida von Nordroff and Teddy 
Nadler — the ordinary citizens on the quiz-pro- 
grams — are common knowledge; though not for 
long. Songs disappear in two or three months, ce- 
lebrities in two or three years; most of the Medium 
is little felt and soon forgotten. Nothing is as dead 
as day-before-yesterday's newspaper, the next-to- 
the-last number on the roulette wheel; but most of 
the knowledge people have in common and lose in 
common is knowledge of such newspapers, such 
numbers. Yet the novelist or poet or dramatist, 
when he moves a great audience, depends upon the 
deep feelings, the living knowledge, that the people 
of that audience share; if so much has become con- 
tingent, superficial, ephemeral, it is disastrous for 

New products and fashions replace the old, and 
the fact that they replace them is proof enough of 
their superiority. Similarly, the Medium does not 
need to show that the subjects which fill it are in- 
teresting or timely or important; the fact that they 
are its subjects makes them so. If Time, Life, and 
the television shows are full of Tom Fool this 
month, he's no fool. And when he has been gone 

7 £ A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

from them a while, we do not think him a fool — 
we do not think of him at all. He no longer exists, 
in the fullest sense of the word exist: to be is to be 
perceived, to be a part of the Medium of our per- 
ception. Our celebrities are not kings, romantic in 
exile, but Representatives who, defeated, are for- 
gotten; they had, always, only the qualities that 
we delegated to them. 

After driving for four or five minutes along the 
road outside my door, I come to a row of one-room 
shacks about the size of kitchens, made out of used 
boards, metal signs, old tin roofs. To the people 
who live in them an electric dishwasher of one's 
own is as much a fantasy as an ocean liner of one's 
own. But since the Medium (and those whose 
thought is molded by it) does not perceive them, 
these people are themselves a fantasy. No matter 
how many millions of such exceptions to the gen- 
eral rule there are, they do not really exist, but have 
a kind of anomalous, statistical subsistence; our 
moral and imaginative view of the world is no 
more affected by them than by the occupants of 
some home for the mentally deficient a little far- 
ther along the road. If some night one of these 
out-moded, economically deficient ghosts should 
scratch at my window, I could say only: "Come 
back twenty or thirty years ago." And if I myself, 
as an old-fashioned, one-room poet, a friend of 
"quiet culture," a "meek lover of the good," should 
go out some night to scratch at another window, 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket y j 

shouldn't I hear someone's indifferent or regretful: 
"Come back a century or two ago"? 

When those whose existence the Medium recog- 
nizes ring the chimes of the writer's doorbell, fall 
through his letter-slot, float out onto his television- 
screen, what is he to say to them? A man's unsuc- 
cessful struggle to get his family food is material 
for a work of art — for tragedy, almost; his unsuc- 
cessful struggle to get his family a stand-by genera- 
tor is material for what? Comedy? Farce? Comedy 
on such a scale, at such a level, that our society and 
its standards seem, almost, farce? And yet it is the 
People of the Medium — those who struggle for and 
get, or struggle for and don't get, the generator — 
whom our society finds representative: they are 
there, there primarily, there to be treated first of all. 
How shall the artist treat them? And the Medium 
itself — an end of life and a means of life, something 
essential to people's understanding and valuing of 
their existence, something many of their waking 
hours are spent listening to or looking at — how is 
it to be treated as subject-matter for art? The artist 
cannot merely reproduce it; should he satirize or 
parody it? But by the time the artist's work reaches 
its audience, the portion of the Medium which it 
satirized will already have been forgotten; and 
parody is impossible, often, when so much of the 
Medium is already an unintentional parody. (Our 
age might be defined as the age in which real 
parody became impossible, since any parody had al- 

j g A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

ready been duplicated, or parodied, in earnest.) Yet 
the Medium, by now, is an essential part of its 
watchers. How can you explain those whom Mo- 
hammedans call the People of the Book in any terms 
that omit the Book? We are people of the televi- 
sion-set, the magazine, the radio, and are inexplica- 
ble in any terms that omit them. 

Oscar Wilde said that Nature imitates Art, that 
before Whistler painted them there were no fogs 
along the Thames. If his statement were not false, 
it would not be witty. But to say that Nature imi- 
tates Art, when the Nature is human nature and the 
Art that of television, radio, motion-pictures, maga- 
zines, is literally true. The Medium shows its Peo- 
ple what life is, what people are, and its People be- 
lieve it: expect people to be that, try themselves to 
be that. Seeing is believing; and if what you see in 
Life is different from what you see in life, which 
of the two are you to believe? For many people it 
is what you see in Life (and in the movies, over 
television, on the radio) that is real life; and every- 
day existence, mere local or personal variation, is 
not real in the same sense. 

The Medium mediates between us and raw re- 
ality, and the mediation more and more replaces 
reality for us. Many radio-stations have a news- 
broadcast every hour, and many people like and 
need to hear it. In many houses either the television 
set or the radio is turned on during most of the 
hours the family is awake. It is as if they longed to 
be established in reality, to be reminded continually 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket j g 

of the "real," "objective" world — the created 
world of the Medium — rather than to be left at 
the mercy of actuality, of the helpless contingency 
of the world in which the radio-receiver or televi- 
sion set is sitting. And surely we can sympathize: 
which of us hasn't found a similar refuge in the 
"real," created world of Cezanne or Goethe or 
Verdi? Yet Dostoievsky's world is too different 
from Wordsworth's, Piero della Francesca's from 
Goya's, Bach's from Wolf's, for us to be able to 
substitute one homogeneous mediated reality for 
everyday reality in the belief that it is everyday re- 
ality. For many watchers, listeners, readers, the 
world of events and celebrities and performers — 
the Great World — has become the world of pri- 
mary reality: how many times they have sighed at 
the colorless unreality of their own lives and fami- 
lies, and sighed for the bright reality of, say, Eliza- 
beth Taylor's. The watchers call the celebrities by 
their first names, approve or disapprove of "who 
they're dating," handle them with a mixture of love, 
identification, envy, and contempt. But however 
they handle them, they handle them: the Medium 
has given everyone so terrible a familiarity with 
everyone that it takes great magnanimity of spirit 
not to be affected by it. These celebrities are not he- 
roes to us, their valets. 

Better to have these real ones play themselves, 
and not sacrifice too much of their reality to art; 
better to have the watcher play himself, and not 
lose too much of himself in art. Usually the watcher 

g A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

is halfway between two worlds, paying full atten- 
tion to neither: half distracted from, half dis- 
tracted by, this distraction; and able for the moment 
not to be too greatly affected, have too great de- 
mands made upon him, by either world. For in the 
Medium, which we escape to from work, nothing 
is ever work, makes intellectual or emotional or 
imaginative demands which we might find it diffi- 
cult to satisfy. Here in the half -world everything is 
homogeneous — is, as much as possible, the same as 
everything else: each familiar novelty, novel fa- 
miliarity has the same treatment on top and the 
same attitude and conclusion at bottom; only the 
middle, the particular subject of the particular pro- 
gram or article, is different. If it is different: every- 
one is given the same automatic "human interest" 
treatment, so that it is hard for us to remember, un- 
necessary for us to remember, which particular 
celebrity we're reading about this time — often it's 
the same one, we've just moved on to a different 

Francesco Caraccioli said that the English have a 
hundred religions and one sauce; so do we; and we 
are so accustomed to this sauce or dye or style of 
presentation, the aesthetic equivalent of Standard 
Brands, that a very simple thing can seem obscure 
or perverse without it. And, too, we find it hard to 
have to shift from one genre to another, to vary 
our attitudes and expectations, to use our unexer- 
cised imaginations. Poetry disappeared long ago, 
even for most intellectuals; each year fiction is a lit- 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 8 1 

tie less important. Our age is the age of articles: 
we buy articles in stores, read articles in magazines, 
exist among the interstices of articles: of columns, 
interviews, photographic essays, documentaries; of 
facts condensed into headlines or expanded into 
non-fiction best-sellers; of real facts about real 

Art lies to us to tell us the (sometimes disquiet- 
ing) truth. The Medium tells us truths, facts, in 
order to make us believe some reassuring or enter- 
taining He or half-truth. These actually existing 
celebrities, of universally admitted importance, 
about whom we are told directly authoritative facts 

how can fictional characters compete with these? 

These are our fictional characters, our Lears and 
Clytemnestras. (This is ironically appropriate, since 
many of their doings and sayings are fictional, made 
up by public relations officers, columnists, agents, 
or other affable familiar ghosts.) And the Medium 
gives us such facts, such tape-recordings, such 
clinical reports not only about the great but also 
about (representative samples of) the small. When 
we have been shown so much about so many — 
can be shown, we feel, anything about anybody- 
does fiction seem so essential as it once seemed? 
Shakespeare or Tolstoy can show us all about 
someone, but so can Life; and when Life does, it's 
someone real. 

The Medium is half life and half art, and com- 
petes with both life and art. It spoils its audience 
for both; spoils both for its audience. For the Peo- 

82 A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

pie of the Medium life isn't sufficiently a matter 
of success and glamor and celebrity, isn't entertain- 
ing enough, distracting enough, mediated enough; 
and art is too difficult or individual or novel, too 
much a matter of tradition and the past, too much a 
matter of special attitudes and aptitudes — its media- 
tion sometimes is queer or excessive, and some- 
times is not even recognizable as mediation. The 
Medium's mixture of rhetoric and reality, in which 
people are given what they know they want to be 
given in the form in which they know they want to 
be given it, is something more efficient and irre- 
sistible than any real art. If a man has all his life 
been fed a combination of marzipan and ethyl al- 
cohol — if eating, to him, is a matter of being 
knocked unconscious by an ice cream soda — can 
he, by taking thought, come to prefer a diet of 
bread and wine, apples and well-water? Will a man 
who has spent his life watching gladiatorial games 
come to prefer listening to chamber music? And 
those who produce the bread and the wine and the 
quartets for him — won't they be tempted either to 
give up producing them, or else to produce a bread 
that's half sugar and half alcohol, a quartet that 
ends with the cellist at the violist's bleeding throat? 
Any outsider who has worked for the Medium 
will have observed that the one thing which seems 
to its managers most unnatural is for someone to do 
something naturally, to speak or write as an indi- 
vidual speaking or writing to other individuals, and 
not as a sub-contractor supplying a standardized 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 8 3 

product to the Medium. It is as if producers and 
editors and supervisors — middle men — were parti- 
cles forming a screen between maker and public, 
one which will let through only particles of their 
own size and weight (or as they say, the public's). 
As you look into their strained pureed faces, their 
big horn-rimmed eyes, you despair of Creation it- 
self, which seems for the instant made in their own 
owl-eyed image. There are so many extrinsic con- 
siderations involved in the presentation of his work, 
the maker finds, that by the time it is presented al- 
most any intrinsic consideration has come to seem 
secondary. No wonder that the professional who 
writes the ordinary commercial success — the ordi- 
nary script, scenario, or best seller — resembles im- 
aginative writers less than he resembles editors, 
producers, executives. The supplier has come to 
resemble those he supplies, and what he supplies 
them resembles both. With an artist you never 
know what you will get; with him you know what 
you will get. He is a reliable source for a standard 
product. He is almost exactly the opposite of the 
imaginative artist: instead of stubbornly or help- 
lessly sticking to what he sees and feels — to what is 
right for him, true to his reality, regardless of what 
the others think and want — he gives the others 
what they think and want, regardless of what he 
himself sees and feels. 

The Medium represents, to the artist, all that he 
has learned not to do: its sure-fire stereotypes seem 
to him what any true art, true spirit, has had to 

o . A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

struggle past on its way to the truth. The artist sees 
the values and textures of this art-substitute replac- 
ing those of his art, so far as most of society is con- 
cerned; conditioning the expectations of what audi- 
ence his art has kept. Mass culture either corrupts 
or isolates the writer. His old feeling of oneness 
— of speaking naturally to an audience with es- 
sentially similar standards — is gone; and writers no 
longer have much of the consolatory feeling that 
took its place, the feeling of writing for the happy 
few, the kindred spirits whose standards are those 
of the future. (Today they feel: the future, should 
there be one, will be worse.) True works of art are 
more and more produced away from or in opposi- 
tion to society. And yet the artist needs society as 
much as society needs him: as our cultural enclaves 
get smaller and drier, more hysterical or academic, 
one mourns for the artists inside and the public out- 
side. An incomparable historian of mass culture, 
Ernest van den Haag, has expressed this with la- 
conic force: "The artist who, by refusing to work 
for the mass market, becomes marginal, cannot 
create what he might have created had there been 
no mass market. One may prefer a monologue to 
addressing a mass meeting. But it is still not a con- 

Even if the rebellious artist's rebellion is whole- 
hearted, it can never be whole-stomach'd, whole- 
unconscious'd. Part of him wants to be like his kind, 
is like his kind; longs to be loved and admired and 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket g r 

successful. Our society — and the artist, in so far as 
he is truly a part of it — has no place set aside for 
the different and poor and obscure, the fools for 
Christ's sake: they all go willy-nilly into Limbo. 
The artist is tempted, consciously, to give his so- 
ciety what it wants — or if he won't or can't, to 
give it nothing at all; is tempted, unconsciously, to 
give it superficially independent or contradictory 
works which are at heart works of the Medium. 
But it is hard for him to go on serving both God 
and Mammon when God is so really ill-, Mammon 
so really well-organized. 

''Shakespeare wrote for the Medium of his day; 
if Shakespeare were alive now he'd be writing My 
Fair Lady; isn't My Fair Lady, then, our Hamlet? 
shouldn't you be writing Hamlet instead of sitting 
there worrying about your superego? I need my 
Hamlet!" So society speaks to the artist, reasons 
with the artist; and after he has written it its Hamlet 
it is satisfied, and tries to make sure that he will 
never do it again. There are many more urgent 
needs that it wants him to satisfy: to lecture to it; 
to be interviewed; to appear on television pro- 
grams; to give testimonials; to attend book lunch- 
eons; to make trips abroad for the State Depart- 
ment; to judge books for Book Clubs; to read for 
publishers, judge for publishers, be a publisher for 
publishers; to edit magazines; to teach writing at 
colleges or conferences; to write scenarios or 
scripts or articles — articles about his home town 

o * A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

for Holiday, about cats or clothes or Christmas for 
Vogue, about "How I Wrote Hamlet" for any- 
thing; to — 

But why go on? I once heard a composer, lectur- 
ing, say to a poet, lecturing: "They'll pay us to do 
anything, so long as it isn't writing music or writ- 
ing poems." I knew the reply that as a member of 
my society I should have made: "As long as they 
pay you, what do you care?" But I didn't make it: 
it was plain that they cared . . . But how many 
more learn not to care, to love what they once en- 
dured! It is a whole so comprehensive that any al- 
ternative seems impossible, any opposition irrele- 
vant; in the end a man says in a small voice: "I 
accept the Medium." The Enemy of the People 
winds up as the People — but where there is no en- 
emy, the people perish. 

The climate of our culture is changing. Under 
these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, 
and what was great grows small; whole species dis- 
appear and are replaced. The American present is 
very different from the American past: so differ- 
ent that our awareness of the extent of the changes 
has been repressed, and we regard as ordinary what 
is extraordinary — ominous perhaps — both for us 
and for the rest of the world. The American pres- 
ent is many other peoples' future: our cultural and 
economic example is to much of the world mes- 
meric, and it is only its weakness and poverty that 
prevent it from hurrying with us into the Roman 
future. But at this moment of our power and sue- 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 8 y 

cess, our thought and art are full of a troubled 
sadness, of the conviction of our own decline. When 
the President of Yale University writes that "the 
ideal of the good life has faded from the educational 
process, leaving only miscellaneous prospects of 
jobs and joyless hedonism," are we likely to find it 
unfaded among our entertainers and executives? Is 
the influence of what I have called the Medium 
likely to lead us to any good life? to make us love 
and try to attain any real excellence, beauty, mag- 
nanimity? or to make us understand these as obliga- 
tory but transparent rationalizations behind which 
the realities of money and power are waiting? 

The tourist Matthew Arnold once spoke about 
our green culture in terms that have an altered 
relevance — but are not yet irrelevant — to our ripe 
one. He said: "What really dissatisfies in American 
civilization is the want of the interesting, a want 
due chiefly to the want of those two great ele- 
ments of the interesting, which are elevation and 
beauty." This use of interesting — and, perhaps, 
this tone of a curator pointing out what is plain and 
culpable — shows how far along in the decline of 
West Arnold came: it is only in the latter days 
that we ask to be interested. He had found the 
word, he tells us, in Carlyle. Carlyle is writing to a 
friend to persuade him not to emigrate to the United 
States; he asks: "Could you banish yourself from all 
that is interesting to your mind, forget the history, 
the glorious institutions, the noble principles of old 
Scotland — that you might eat a better dinner, per- 

o g A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 

haps?" We smile, and feel like reminding Carlyle of 
the history, the glorious institutions, the noble 
principles of new America — of that New World 
which is, after all, the heir of the Old. 

And yet . . . Can we smile as comfortably, to- 
day, as we could have smiled yesterday? Nor 
could we listen as unconcernedly, if on taking leave 
of us some other tourist should conclude, with the 
penetration and obtuseness of his kind: 

"I remember reading somewhere: that which you 
inherit from your fathers you must earn in order 
to possess. I have been so much impressed with 
your power and your possessions that I have neg- 
lected, perhaps, your principles. The elevation or 
beauty of your spirit did not equal, always, that of 
your mountains and skyscrapers: it seems to me that 
your society provides you with 'all that is interest- 
ing to the mind' only exceptionally, at odd hours, in 
little reservations like those of your Indians. But 
as for your dinners, I've never seen anything like 
them: your daily bread comes flambe. And yet — 
wouldn't you say — the more dinners a man eats, the 
more comforts he possesses, the hungrier and more 
uncomfortable some part of him becomes: inside 
every fat man there is a man who is starving. Part 
of you is being starved to death, and the rest of 
you is being stuffed to death. But this will change: 
no one goes on being stuffed to death or starved to 
death forever. 

"This is a gloomy, an equivocal conclusion? Oh 
yes, I come from an older culture, where things are 

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket g q 

accustomed to coming to such conclusions; where 
there is no last-paragraph fairy to bring one, al- 
ways, a happy ending — or that happiest of all end- 
ings, no ending at all. And have I no advice to give 
you as I go? None. You are too successful to need 
advice, or to be able to take it if it were offered; 
but if ever you should fail, it is there waiting for 
you, the advice or consolation of all the other fail- 


Poets, Critics, and Readers 

People often ask me: "Is there any poet who 
makes his living writing poetry?" and I have to 
say: "No." The public has an unusual relationship 
to the poet: it doesn't even know that he is there. 
Our public is a rich and generous one; if it knew 
that the poet was there, it would pay him for being 
there. As it is, poets make their living in many ways: 
by being obstetricians, like William Carlos Wil- 
liams; or directors of Faber and Faber, like T. S. 
Eliot; or vice-presidents of the Hartford Accident 
and Indemnity Company, like Wallace Stevens. But 
most poets, nowadays, make their living by teach- 
ing. Kepler said, "God gives every animal a way to 
make its living, and He has given the astronomer 
astrology"; and now, after so many centuries, He 
has given us poets students. But what He gives 
with one hand He takes away with the other: He 
has taken away our readers. 

Yet the poet can't help looking at what he has 
left, his students, with gratitude. His job may be 
an impossible one— there are three impossible 


Poets, Critics, and Readers g j 

tasks, said Freud: to teach, to govern, and to cure 
— but what is there so grateful as impossibility? and 
what is there better to teach, more nearly impossi- 
ble to teach, than poems and stories? As Lord Ma- 
caulay says: "For how can man live better/ Than 
facing fearful odds/ For the poems of his fa- 

I seem to have remembered it a little wrong, but 
it's a natural error. And, today, when we get peo- 
ple to read poems — to read very much of anything 
— naturally and joyfully, to read it not as an un- 
natural Tightness but as a natural error: what peo- 
ple always have done, always will do — we do it 
against fearful odds. I can't imagine a better way for 
the poet to make his living. I certainly can't imagine 
his making his living by writing poems — I'm not 
that imaginative. I'm used to things as they are. 

But there is a passage in Wordsworth that I read, 
always, with a rueful smile. He is answering the 
question, Why write in verse? He gives several rea- 
sons. His final reason, he writes, "is all that is nec- 
essary to say upon this subject." Here it is, all that 
it is necessary to say upon this subject: "Few per- 
sons will deny, that of two descriptions, either of 
passions, manners, or characters, each of them 
equally well executed, the one in prose and the 
other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred 
times where the prose is read once." 

One sees sometimes, carved on geology build- 
ings: O Earth, what changes thou hast seen! When 
a poet finishes reading this passage from Words- 

Poets, Critics, and Readers 

worth, ,he thinks in miserable awe: O Earth, what 
changes thou hast seen! Only a hundred and fifty 
years ago this is what people were like. Nowadays, 
of course, the prose will be read a thousand times 
where the verse is read once. And this seems to 
everybody only natural; the situation Wordsworth 
describes seems unnatural, improbable, almost im- 
possible. What Douglas Bush writes is true: we live 
in "a time in which most people assume that, as an 
eminent social scientist once said to me, 'Poetry 
is on the way out.' " To most of us verse, any verse, 
is so uncongenial, so exhaustively artificial, that I 
have often thought that a man could make his for- 
tune by entirely eliminating from our culture verse 
of any kind: in the end there would be no more 
poems, only prose translations of them. This man 
could begin by publishing his Revised Standard 
Version of Mother Goose: without rhyme, meter, 
or other harmful adulterants; with no word of 
anything but honest American prose, prose that cats 
and dogs can read. 

A friend of mine once took a famous Italian 
scholar on a tour of New Haven. She specialized in 
objects of art and virtue— samplers, figureheads, 
paintings of women under willows, statues of Gen- 
eral Washington — but no matter what she showed 
him, the man would only wave his hand in the air 
and exclaim: Ridickalus! And shouldn't we feel so 
about things like Mother Goose? 

Early to bed and early to rise 

Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 

Poets, Critics, and Readers Q ^ 

Ridickalus! Why say it like a rocking horse? why 
make it jingle so? and wise — who wants to be wise? 

Which sibling is the well-adjusted sibling? 
The one that gets its sleep. 

That is the way the modern Mother Goose will put 
it. I don't expect the modern Mother Goose to be 
especially popular with little children, who have 
not yet learned not to like poetry; but it is the par- 
ents who buy the book. 

Isn't writing verse a dying art, anyway, like 
blacksmithing or buggymaking? Well, not exactly: 
poets are making as many buggies as ever — good 
buggies, fine buggies — they just can't get anybody 
much to ride in them. As for blacksmithing: I read 
the other day that there are twice as many black- 
smith shops in the United States as there are book- 
stores. Something has gone wrong with that com- 
parison too. No, I'm doing what poets do, 
complaining; and if I exaggerate a little when I 
complain, why, that's only human — surely you 
want me to exaggerate a little, in my misery. 
Goethe says, when he is talking about slum chil- 
dren: "No person ever looks miserable who feels 
that he has the right to make a demand on you." 
This right is not anything that anyone can confer 
upon himself; it is the public, society, all of us, that 
confer this right. If the poet looks miserable, it is be- 
cause we have made him feel that he no longer has 
the right to make a demand on us. It is no longer a 
question of what he wants, or of what he ought to 

Poets, Critics, and Readers 

be given — he takes what he gets, and complains 
about getting it, and he hears the echo of his com- 
plaint, and then the silence settles around him, a lit- 
tle darker, a little deeper. 

What does he want? To be read. Read by whom? 
critics? men wise enough to tell him, when they 
have read the poem, what it is and ought to be, what 
its readers feel and ought to feel? Well, no. A 
writer cannot learn about his readers from his crit- 
ics: they are different races. The critic, unless he is 
one in a thousand, reads to criticize; the reader reads 
to read. 

Freud talks of the "free-floating" or "evenly- 
hovering" attention with which the analyst must 
listen to the patient. Concentration, note-taking, lis- 
tening with a set — a set of pigeonholes — makes it 
difficult or impossible for the analyst's unconscious 
to respond to the patient's; takes away from the 
analyst the possibility of learning from the patient 
what the analyst doesn't already know; takes away 
from him all those random guesses or intuitions or 
inspirations which come out of nowhere — and 
come, too, out of the truth of the patient's being. 
But this is quite as true of critics and the poems 
that are their patients: when one reads as a linguist, 
a scholar, a New or Old or High or Low critic, 
when one reads the poem as a means to an end, one 
is no longer a pure reader but an applied one. The 
true reader "listens like a three years' child:/ 
The Mariner hath his will." Later on he may write 
like a sixty-three-year-old sage, but he knows that 

Poets, Critics, and Readers gr 

in the beginning, unless ye be converted, and be- 
come as little children, ye shall not enter into the 
kingdom of art. Hofmannsthal says, with awful fi- 
nality: "The world has lost its innocence, and with- 
out innocence no one creates or enjoys a work of 
art"; but elsewhere he says more hopefully, with 
entire and not with partial truth, that each of us 
lives in an innocence of his own which he never en- 
tirely loses. 

Is there a public for poetry that is still, in this 
sense of the word, innocent? Of course, there are 
several publics for poetry — small, benighted, eccen- 
tric publics — just as there are publics for postage 
stamps and cobblers' benches; but this is such a dis- 
astrous change from the days of Childe Harold 
and In Memoriam and Hiawatha, when the public 
for poetry was, simply, the reading public, that you 
can see why poets feel the miserable astonishment 
that they feel. The better-known poets feel it more 
than the lesser-known, who — poor things — lie un- 
der the table grateful for crumbs, pats, kicks, any- 
thing at all that will let them be sure they really 
exist, and are not just a dream someone has stopped 
dreaming. A poet like Auden says that nobody 
reads him except poets and young men in cafeterias 
— his description of the young men is too repellent 
for me to repeat it to you. 

Literally, Auden is wrong: we read Auden, this 
is no cafeteria; but, figuratively, Auden is right — 
the poet's public's gone. Frederick the Great trans- 
lated Voltaire, and trembled as the poet read the 

q£ Poets, Critics, and Readers 

translation; Elizabeth — Elizabeth the First — and 
Henry the Eighth and Richard the Lion-hearted 
wrote good poems and read better; and I cannot 
resist quoting to you three or four sentences from 
Frans Bengtsson's novel The Long Ships, to show 
you what things were like at the court of Harald 
Bluetooth, King of Denmark in the year iooo. A 
man gets up from a banquet table: "His name was 
Bjorn Asbrandsson, and he was a famous warrior, 
besides being a great poet to boot. . . . Although 
he was somewhat drunk, he managed to improvise 
some highly skilful verses in King Harald's honor 
in a meter known as toglag. This was the latest and 
most difficult verse-form that the Icelandic poets 
had invented, and indeed the poem was so artfully 
contrived that little could be understood of its con- 
tent. Everybody, however, listened with an ap- 
pearance of understanding, for any man who could 
not understand poetry would be regarded as a poor 
specimen of a warrior; and King Harald praised 
the poet and gave him a gold ring." 

Auden is a descendant of just such poets as this 
one; but if Auden, when he next visits the Univer- 
sity of your state, makes up an incomprehensible 
poem, in a difficult new meter, in honor of the 
President of the University, will all its football 
players pretend they understand the poem, so as 
not to be thought poor specimens of football play- 
ers? and will the President give Auden a gold 

In the days when his readers couldn't read, the 

Poets, Critics, and Readers qj 

poet judged his public by his public: the gold ring 
or the scowl the king gave him was as concrete as 
the labored, triumphant faces of his hearers. But 
nowadays King Harald and his warriors are repre- 
sented by a reviewer, next year, in the New York 
Times; a critic, nine years later, in the Sewanee Re- 
view. "Ah, better to sing my songs to a wolf pack 
on the Seeonee than to a professor on the Se- 
wanee!" the poet blurts, baring his teeth; but then — 
what choice has he? — he lets the Reality Principle 
do its worst, and projects or extends or extrapolates 
a critic or two, a dozen reviewers, into the Public; 
into Posterity. Critics, alas! are the medium through 
which the poet darkly senses his public. Nor is it 
altogether different for the public: Harald and his 
vikings, lonely in their split-levels, do not even re- 
member the days when, as they listened, they 
could look into one another's faces and know with- 
out looking what they would find there. Now they 
too look into the Times; wish that they could re- 
place that scowl with a gold ring, that gold ring 
with a scowl; reconstruct from the exclamations on 
dust jackets, quotations in advertisements, the fierce 
smiles on the faces of the warriors. 

So if we are to talk about the poet and his poems 
and his public, what each is to the others, we must 
spend much of our time — too much of our time — 
talking about his critics. Criticism is necessary, I sup- 
pose; I know. Yet criticism, to the poet, is no neces- 
sity, but a luxury he can ill afford. Conrad cried to 
his wife: "I don't want criticism, I want praise!" 

Q o Poets, Critics, and Readers 

And it is praise, blame, tears, laughter, that writers 
want; when Columbus comes home he needs to be 
cheered for finding a new way to India, not in- 
terned while the officials argue about whether it is 
Asia, Africa, or Antarctica that he has discovered. 
Really, of course, it's America — and if they agreed 
about it this would be helpful to Columbus; he 
could say to himself, in awe: "So it was America I 
discovered!" But how seldom the critics do agree! 
A gray writer seems black to his white critics, 
white to his black critics: the same poem will seem 
incomprehensible modernistic nonsense to Robert 
Hillyer, and a sober, old-fashioned, versified essay 
to the critics of some little magazine of advanced 
tastes. Ordinary human feeling, the most natural 
tenderness, will seem to many critics and readers 
rank sentimentality, just as a kind of nauseated bru- 
tality (in which the writer's main response to the 
world is simply to vomit) will seem to many critics 
and readers the inescapable truth. We live in a time 
in which Hofmannsthal's "Good taste is the ability 
continuously to counteract exaggeration" will seem 
to most readers as false as it seems tame. "Each 
epoch has its own sentimentality," Hofmannsthal 
goes on, "its specific way of overemphasizing strata 
of emotion. The sentimentality of the present is 
egotistic and unloving; it exaggerates not the feel- 
ing of love but that of the self." 

Everyone speaks of the "negative capability" of 
the artist, of his ability to lose what self he has in 
the many selves, the great self of the world. Such 

Poets, Critics, and Readers 90, 

a quality is, surely, the first that a critic should have; 
yet who speaks of the negative capability of the 
critic? how often are we able to observe it? The 
commonest response to the self of a work of art is 
the critic's assertion that he too has a self. What he 
writes proves it. I once saw, in an essay by a psy- 
choanalyst, the phrase the artist and his competitor, 
the critic. Where got he that truth? Out of an 
analysand's mouth? I do not know; but that it is an 
important and neglected truth I do know. All me- 
diators become competitors: the exceptions to this 
rule redeem their kind. 

Critics disagree about almost every quality of a 
writer's work; and when some agree about a qual- 
ity, they disagree about whether it is to be praised 
or blamed, nurtured or rooted out. After enough 
criticism the writer is covered with lipstick and 
bruises, and the two are surprisingly evenly dis- 
tributed. There is nothing so plain about a writer's 
books, to some critics, that its opposite isn't plain 
to others. Kafka is original? Not at all, according 
to Edmund Wilson. A fine critic of poetry, Ezra 
Pound, writes: "In [the writer So-and-So] you 
have an embroidery of language, a talk about the 
matter, not presentation; you have grace, richness 
of language, etc., as much as you like, but you have 
nothing that isn't replaceable by something else, no 
ornament that wouldn't have done just as well in 
some other connection, or that for which some 
other figure of rhetoric or fancy couldn't have 
served, or which couldn't have been distilled from 

j 00 Poets, Critics, and Readers 

literary antecedents." About whom is Pound speak- 
ing? About Shakespeare. Anyone who has read at 
all widely has come across thousands of such judg- 
ments, and it is easy for him to sympathize with 
the artist when the artist murmurs: "We wish to 
learn from our critics, but it is hard for us even to 
recover from them. A fool's reproach has an edge 
like a razor, and his brother's praise is small con- 
solation. Critics are like bees: one sting lasts longer 
than a dozen jars of honey." 

The best thing ever said about criticism — I am 
not, now, speaking as a critic — was said, as is often 
the case, by Goethe: "Against criticism we can nei- 
ther protect nor defend ourselves; we must act in 
despite of it, and gradually it resigns itself to this." 
The great Goethe suffered just as we little creatures 
do, and he spoke about it, as we don't, in imperisha- 
ble sentences: "All great excellence in life or art, at 
its first recognition, brings with it a certain pain 
arising from the strongly felt inferiority of the 
spectator; only at a later period, when we take it 
into our own culture, and appropriate as much of it 
as our capacities allow, do we learn to love and es- 
teem it. Mediocrity, on the other hand, may often 
give us unqualified pleasure; it does not disturb our 
self-satisfaction, but rather encourages us with the 
thought that we are as good as another. . . . Prop- 
erly speaking, we learn only from those books we 
cannot judge. The author of a book that I am com- 
petent to criticize would have to learn from me." 
Goethe says over and over: "Nothing is more ter- 

Poets, Critics, and Readers I O I 

rible than ignorance in action. ... It is a terrible 
thing when fools thrive at the expense of a superior 
man." You and I will agree — and then we will have 
to decide whether we're being thriven at the ex- 
pense of, or thriving. Goethe says in firm doggerel: 
"However clear and simple be it/ Finder and doer 
alone may see it." No, Goethe didn't have too much 
use for critics, since he thought that critics weren't 
of too much use. 

And why am I quoting all this to you? have 
critics hurt me so that I want to pull down the tem- 
ple upon their heads, even if I too perish in the 
ruins? — for I too am a critic. No, it's not that; crit- 
ics have done their best for me, and their best has 
been, perhaps, only too good; when I myself criti- 
cize, I am willing for you to believe what I say; 
but I am trying to explain why it is that critics are 
of so little use to writers, why it is that they are 
such a poor guide to the opinions of the next age — 
and I am explaining in an age which has an un- 
precedented respect for, trust in, criticism. 

All of us have read pieces of criticism — many 
pieces of criticism — which seem worthy both of de- 
lighted respect and cautious trust. All of us have 
read criticism in which the critic takes it for granted 
that what he writes about comes first, and what he 
writes comes second — takes it for granted that he 
is writing as a reader to other readers, to be of use 
to them; criticism in which the critic works, as far 
as he is able, in the spirit of Wordsworth's "I have 
endeavored to look steadily at my subject." All of 

j q 2 Poets, Critics, and Readers 

us have some favorite, exceptional critic who 
might say, with substantial truth, that he has not set 
up rigid standards to which a true work of art must 
conform, but that he has tried instead to let the 
many true works of art — his experience of them — 
set up the general expectations to which his criti- 
cism of art conforms; that he has tried never to see 
a work of art as mere raw material for criticism, 
data for generalization; that he has tried never to 
forget the difference between creating a work of 
art and criticising a work of art; and that he has 
tried, always, to remember what Proust meant 
when he said, about writers like Stendhal, Balzac, 
Hugo, Flaubert, the great creators called "ro- 
mantics": "The classics have no better commenta- 
tors than the 'romantics.' The romantics are the 
only people who really know how to read the 
classics, because they read them as they were writ- 
ten, that is to say, 'romantically' and because if one 
would read a poet or a prose writer properly one 
must be, not a scholar, but a poet or a prose writer." 
It might be put a little differently: if one would 
read a poet or a prose writer properly one must be, 
not a scholar or a poet or a prose writer, but a 
reader: someone who reads books as they were 
written, that is to say, "romantically." Proust's 
grandmother was not a poet or a prose writer, but 
she read Madame de Sevigne properly. To be, as she 
was, a reader, is a lofty and no longer common 

The best poetry critic of our time, T. S. Eliot, 

Poets, Critics, and Readers j q -> 

has said about his criticism: "I see that I wrote best 
about poets whose work had influenced my own, 
and with whose poetry I had become thoroughly 
familiar, long before I desired to write about them, 
or had found the occasion to do so. . . . The best 
of my literary criticism ... is a by-product of my 
private poetry-workshop." But perhaps something 
of this sort is always true: perhaps true criticism is 
something, like sincerity or magnanimity, that can- 
not be aimed at, attained, directly; that must always 
be, in some sense, a by-product, whether of writing 
or reading, of a private poetry-workshop or a pri- 
vate reading-room. 

We all realize that writers are inspired, but help- 
less and fallible beings, who know not what they 
write; readers, we know from personal experience, 
are less inspired but no less helpless and fallible 
beings, who half the time don't know what they're 
reading. Now, a critic is half writer, half reader: 
just as the vices of men and horses met in centaurs, 
the weaknesses of readers and writers meet in 
critics. A good critic — we cannot help seeing, when 
we look back at any other age — is a much rarer 
thing than a good poet or a good novelist. Unless 
you are one critic in a hundred thousand, the future 
will quote you only as an example of the normal 
error of the past, what everybody was foolish 
enough to believe then. Critics are discarded like 
calendars; yet, for their year, with what trust the 
world regards them! 

Art is long, and critics are the insects of a day. 

. . Poets, Critics, and Readers 

But while he survives, it is the work of art he criti- 
cizes which is the critic's muse, or daemon, or 
guardian angel: it is a delight to the critic to think 
that sometimes, in moments of particular good 
fortune, some poem by Rilke or Yeats or Words- 
worth has hovered above him, whispering what to 
say about it in his ear. And, in the moments of rash 
ambition which can come even to such humble — 
rightly humble — things as critics, the critic can im- 
agine some reader, in the midst of his pleasure at a 
poem or story the critic has guided him to, being 
willing to think of some paragraph of the critic's 
work in terms of a sentence of Goethe's: "There is 
a sensitive empiricism that ultimately identifies itself 
with the object and thereby becomes genuine 

In other moments the critic can imagine the read- 
er's thinking of him in terms of a paragraph that 
Proust once wrote. That miraculous writer and 
great critic, distressed at someone's having referred 
to Sainte-Beuve as one of the "great guides," ex- 
claimed: "Surely no one ever failed so completely 
as did he in performing the functions of a guide? 
The greater part of his Lundis are devoted to 
fourth-rate writers, and whenever, by chance, he 
does bring himself to speak of somebody really im- 
portant, of Flaubert, for instance, or Baudelaire, he 
immediately atones for what grudging praise he 
may have accorded him by letting it be understood 
that he writes as he does about them simply be- 
cause he wants to please men who are his personal 

Foe ts, Critics, and Readers I O r 

friends. ... As to Stendhal, the novelist, the 
Stendhal of 'La Chartreuse,' our 'guide' laughs out 
of court the idea that such a person ever existed, 
and merely sees in all the talk about him the disas- 
trous effects of an attempt (foredoomed to failure) 
to foist Stendhal on the public as a novelist. ... It 
would be fun, had I not less important things to 
do, to 'brush in' (as Monsieur Cuvillier Fleury 
would have said), in the manner of Sainte-Beuve, a 
'picture of French literature in the nineteenth cen- 
tury,' in such a way that not a single great name 
would appear and men would be promoted to the 
position of outstanding authors whose books today 
have been completely forgotten." 

A portion of any critic, as he reads these sen- 
tences, turns white; and if another portion whis- 
pers, "Ah, but you needn't be afraid; certainly 
you! re not as bad a critic as Sainte-Beuve," it is 
not a sentence to bring the color back into his 
cheeks, unless he blushes easily. 

Wordsworth said, as Proust said after him, that 
"every writer, in so far as he is great and at the 
same time original, has the task of creating the 
taste by which he is to be enjoyed: so is it, so will 
it continue to be." But taste, he goes on to say, is 
a vicious and deluding word. (And surely he is 
right; surely we should use, instead, a phrase like 
imaginative judgment!) Using such a word as taste 
helps to make us believe that there is some passive 
faculty that responds to the new work of art, reg- 
istering the work's success or failure; but actually 

^ Poets, Critics, and Readers 

the new work must call forth in us an active power 
analogous to that which created it — the reader 
"cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried 
like a dead weight," he must "exert himself" to feel, 
to sympathize, and to understand. "There" as 
Wordsworth says, "lies the true difficulty." He is 
right: there lies the difficulty for us, whether we 
are critics or readers; so is it, so will it continue 
to be. 

You may say, "Of course this is true of great and 
original talents, but how does it apply to the trivial, 
immature, and eccentric writers with whom our 
age, like any other, is infested?" It applies only in 
this way: some of these trivial, immature, and ec- 
centric writers are our great and original talents. 
The readers of Wordsworth's age said, "Of course 
what he says is true of great and original talents, 
but it is absurd when applied to a trivial and eccen- 
tric creature like Wordsworth"; and the critics of 
Wordsworth's age, applying the standards of the 
age more clearly, forcibly, and self-consciously, 
could condemn him with a more drastic severity. 
The readers read to read, the critics read to judge 
— both were wrong, but the critics were more im- 
pressively and rigorously and disastrously wrong, 
since they confirmed most readers in their dislike of 
Wordsworth and scared most of the others out of 
their liking. 

We all see that the writer cannot afford to listen 
to critics when they are wrong — though how is he, 
how are we, to know when they are wrong? Can 

Poets, Critics, and Readers I Oy 

he afford to listen to them when they are right? — 
though how is he, how are we, to know when 
they are right? and right for this age or right for 
the next?* The writer cannot afford to question his 
own essential nature; must have, as Marianne Moore 
says, "the courage of his peculiarities." But often it 
is this very nature, these very peculiarities — origi- 
nality always seems peculiarity, to begin with — that 
critics condemn. There must be about the writer a 
certain spontaneity or naivete or somnambulistic 
Tightness: he must, in some sense, move unquestion- 
ing in the midst of his world — at his question all 
will disappear. 

And if it is slighter things, alterable things 
which the critics condemn, should the poet give in, 
alter them, and win his critics' surprised approval? 
"No," says Wordsworth, "where the understand- 
ing of an author is not convinced, or his feelings 
altered, this cannot be done without great injury to 
himself: for his own feelings are his stay and sup- 
port, and, if he set them aside in this one instance, 
he may be induced to repeat this act till his mind 
shall lose all confidence in itself, and become ut- 
terly debilitated. To this it may be added, that the 
critic ought never to forget that he is himself ex- 
posed to the same errors as the Poet." Let me repeat 

* "When the great innovation appears, it will almost cer- 
tainly be in a muddled, incomplete, and confusing form. To the 
discoverer himself it will be only half -understood; to every- 
body else it will be a mystery. For any speculation which does 
not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope." 

F. L. Dyson, Innovation in Physics 

j q o Poets } Critics, and Readers 

this: we ought never to forget that the critic is 
himself exposed to the same errors as the poet. We 
all know this — yet, in a deeper sense, we don't 
know it. We all realize that the poet's beliefs are, 
first of all, his: our books show how his epoch, his 
childhood, his mistresses, and his unconscious pro- 
duced the beliefs; we know, now, the "real" rea- 
sons for his believing what he believed. Why do we 
not realize what is equally true (and equally 
false)? — that the critic's beliefs are, first of all, his; 
that we can write books showing how his epoch, 
his childhood, his mistresses, and his unconscious 
produced the beliefs; that we can know, now, the 
"real" reasons for his believing what he believed. 
The work of criticism is rooted in the unconscious 
of the critic just as the poem is rooted in the uncon- 
scious of the poet. I have had the pleasure and ad- 
vantage of knowing many poets, many critics, and 
I have not found one less deeply neurotic than the 

When the critic is also an artist — a T. S. Eliot — 
we find it easier to remember all this, and to distrust 
him; but when the critic is an Irving Babbitt — 
that is to say, a man who, tenanted by all nine of the 
muses, still couldn't create a couplet — we tend to 
think of his beliefs as somehow more objective. 
"Surely," we feel, "a man with so little imagination 
couldn't be making up something — couldn't be in- 
spired" We are wrong. Criticism is the poetry of 
prosaic natures (and even, in our time, of some po- 
etic ones) ; there is a divinity that inspires the most 

Poets, Critics, and Readers j qq 

sheeplike of scholars, the most tabular of critics, so 
that the man too dull to understand Evangeline still 
can be possessed by some theory about Evangeline, 
a theory as just to his own being as it is unjust to 
Evangeline 7 s. The man is entitled to his inspiration; 
and yet ... if only he would leave out Evange- 
line/ If only he could secede from Literature, and 
set up some metaliterary kingdom of his own! 

The poet needs to be deluded about his poems — 
for who can be sure that it is delusion? In his strong- 
est hours the public hardly exists for the writer: he 
does what he ought to do, has to do, and if after- 
wards some Public wishes to come and crown him 
with laurel crowns, well, let it! if critics wish to tell 
people all that he isn't, well, let them — he knows 
what he is. But at night when he can't get to sleep 
it seems to him that it is what he is, his own particu- 
lar personal quality, that he is being disliked for. It 
is this that the future will like him for, if it likes 
him for anything; but will it like him for anything? 
The poet's hope is in posterity, but it is a pale hope; 
and now that posterity itself has become a pale 
hope. . . . 

The writer — I am still talking about the writer- 
not-yet-able-to-go-to-sleep — is willing to have his 
work disliked, if it's bad; is ready to rest content in 
dislike, if it's good. But which is it? He can't know. 
He thinks of all those pieces of his that he once 
thought good, and now thinks bad; how many of 
his current swans will turn out to be just such 
ducklings? All of them? If he were worse, would 

j j q Poets, Critics, and Readers 

people like him better? If he were better, would 
people like him worse? If — 

He says to himself, "Oh, go to sleep!" And next 
morning, working at something the new day has 
brought, he is astonished at the night's thoughts — 
he does what he does, and lets public, critics, pos- 
terity worry about whether it's worth doing. For 
to tell the truth, the first truth, the poem is a love 
affair between the poet and his subject, and readers 
come in only a long time later, as witnesses at the 
wedding . . . 

But what would the ideal witnesses — the ideal 
public — be? What would an ideal public do? 
Mainly, essentially, it would just read the poet; 
read him with a certain willingness and interest; 
read him imaginatively and perceptively. It needs 
him, even if it doesn't know that; he needs it, even 
if he doesn't know that. It and he are like people in 
one army, one prison, one world: their interests 
are great and common, and deserve a kind of dec- 
laration of dependence. The public might treat him 
very much as it would like him to treat it. It has its 
faults, he has his; but both "are, after all," as a man 
said about women, "the best things that are offered 
in that line." The public ought not to demand the 
same old thing from the poet whenever he writes 
something very new, nor ought it to complain, The 
same old thing! whenever he writes something that 
isn't very new; and it ought to realize that it is not, 
unfortunately, in the writer's power to control 
what he writes: something else originates and con- 

Poets, Critics, and Readers 1 1 1 

trols it, whether you call that something else the 
unconscious or Minerva or the Muse. The writer 
writes what he writes just as the public likes what 
it likes; he can't help himself, it can't help itself, 
but each of them has to try: most of our morality, 
most of our culture are in the trying. 

We readers can be, or at least can want to be, 
what the writer himself would want us to be: a 
public that reads a lot — that reads widely, joyfully, 
and naturally; a public whose taste is formed by 
acquaintance with the good and great writers of 
many ages, and not simply acquaintance with a few 
fashionable contemporaries and the fashionable 
precursors of those; a public with broad general 
expectations, but without narrow particular de- 
mands, that the new work of art must satisfy; a 
public that reads with the calm and ease and inde- 
pendence that come from liking things in them- 
selves, for themselves. 

This is the kind of public that the poet would 
like; and if it turned out to be the kind of public 
that wouldn't like him, why, surely that is some- 
thing he could bear. It is not his poems but poetry 
that he wants people to read; if they will read 
Rilke's and Yeats's and Hardy's poems, he can bear 
to have his own poems go unread forever. He 
knows that their poems are good to read, and that's 
something he necessarily can't know about his own; 
and he knows, too, that poetry itself is good to read 
— that if you cannot read poetry easily and natu- 
rally and joyfully, you are cut off from much of 

112 Poets, Critics, and Readers 

the great literature of the past, some of the good 
literature of the present. Yet the poet could bear 
to have people cut off from all that, if only they 
read widely, naturally, joyfully in the rest of litera- 
ture: much of the greatest literature, much of the 
greatest poetry, even, is in prose. If people read this 
prose — read even a little of it — generously and 
imaginatively, and felt it as truth and life, as a 
natural and proper joy, why, that would be enough. 

A few months ago I read an interview with a 
critic; a well-known critic; an unusually humane 
and intelligent critic. The interviewer had just said 
that the critic "sounded like a happy man," and the 
interview was drawing to a close; the critic said, 
ending it all: "I read, but I don't get time to read at 
whim. All the reading I do is in order to write or 
teach, and I resent it. We have no TV, and I don't 
listen to the radio or records, or go to art galleries 
or the theater. I'm a completely negative person- 

As I thought of that busy, artless life — no rec- 
ords, no paintings, no plays, no books except those 
you lecture on or write articles about — I was so 
depressed that I went back over the interview look- 
ing for some bright spot, and I found it, one beauti- 
ful sentence: for a moment I had left the gray, 
dutiful world of the professional critic, and was 
back in the sunlight and shadow, the unconsidered 
joys, the unreasoned sorrows, of ordinary readers 
and writers, amateurishly reading and writing "at 
whim." The critic said that once a year he read 

Poets, Critics, and Readers 113 

Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not 
to teach, not to criticize, just for love — he read it, 
as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted 
to, couldn't help himself. To him it wasn't a means 
to a lecture or an article, it was an end; he read it 
not for anything he could get out of it, but for it- 
self. And isn't this what the work of art demands 
of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us al- 
ways: You must change your life. It demands of 
us that we too see things as ends, not as means — 
that we too know them and love them for their 
own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during 
the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; 
but during the contemplative and sympathetic 
hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it 
is surely within our power, if we choose to make 
it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature 
follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a 
closing sentence: Read at whim/ read at whim! 

On Preparing to Read Kipling 

Mark Twain said that it isn't what they 
don't know that hurts people, it's what 
they do know that isn't so. This is true of Kipling. 
If people don't know about Kipling they can read 
Kipling, and then they'll know about Kipling: it's 
ideal. But most people already do know about 
Kipling — not very much, but too much: they 
know what isn't so, or what might just as well not 
be so, it matters so little. They know that, just as 
Calvin Coolidge's preacher was against sin and the 
Snake was for it, Kipling was for imperialism; he 
talked about the white man's burden; he was a crude 
popular — immensely popular — writer who got 
popular by writing "If," and "On the Road to 
Mandalay," and "The Jungle Book," and stories 
about India like Somerset Maugham, and children's 
stories; he wrote, "East is East and West is West and 
never the twain shall meet"; he wrote, "The female 
of the species is more deadly than the male" — or 
was that Pope? Somebody wrote it. In short: Kip- 
ling was someone people used to think was wonder- 
ful, but we know better than that now. 


On Preparing to Read Kipling 1 1 r 

People certainly didn't know better than that 
then. "Dear Harry," William James begins. (It is 
hard to remember, hard to believe, that anyone ever 
called Henry James Harry, but if it had to be done, 
William James was the right man to do it.) "Last 
Sunday I dined with Howells at the Childs', and 
was delighted to hear him say that you were both a 
friend and an admirer of Rudyard Kipling. I am 
ashamed to say that I have been ashamed to write of 
that infant phenomenon, not knowing, with your 
exquisitely refined taste, how you might be affected 
by him and fearing to jar. [It is wonderful to have 
the engineer /Hoist "with his own petard. \ The 
more rejoiced am I at this, but why didn't you say 
so ere now? He's more of a Shakespeare than any- 
one yet in this generation of ours, as it strikes me. 
And seeing the new effects he lately brings in in 
"The Light That Failed," and that Simla Ball story 
with Mrs. Hauksbee in the Illustrated London 
News, makes one sure now that he is only at the 
beginning of a rapidly enlarging career, with in- 
definite growth before him. Much of his present 
coarseness and jerkiness is youth only, divine youth. 
But what a youth! Distinctly the biggest literary 
phenomenon of our time. He has such human en- 
trails, and he takes less time to get under the heart- 
strings of his personages than anyone I know. On 
the whole, bless him. 

"All intellectual work is the same, — the artist 
feeds the public on his own bleeding insides. Kant's 
Kritik is just like a Strauss waltz, and I felt the 

j j ^ On Preparing to Read Kipling 

other day, finishing "The Light That Failed," and 
an ethical address to be given at Yale College 
simultaneously, that there was no essential differ- 
ence between Rudyard Kipling and myself as far as 
that sacrificial element goes." 

It surprises us to have James take Kipling so 
seriously, without reservations, with Shakespeare — 
to treat him as if he were Kant's Kritik and not a 
Strauss waltz. (Even Henry James, who could 
refer to "the good little Thomas Hardy" — who was 
capable of applying to the Trinity itself the adjec- 
tive poor — somehow felt that he needed for Kipling 
that coarse word genius, and called him, at worst, 
"the great little Kipling.") Similarly, when Goethe 
and Matthew Arnold write about Byron, we are 
surprised to see them bringing in Shakespeare — are 
surprised to see how unquestioningly, with what 
serious respect, they speak of Byron, as if he were 
an ocean or a new ice age: "our soul," wrote 
Arnold, "had felt him like the thunder's roll." It is 
as though mere common sense, common humanity, 
required this of them: the existence of a world- 
figure like Byron demands (as the existence of a 
good or great writer does not) that any inhabitant 
of the world treat him somehow as the world treats 
him. Goethe knew that Byron "is a child when he 
reflects," but this did not prevent him from treating 
Byron exactly as he treated that other world-figure 

An intelligent man said that the world felt Napo- 
leon as a weight, and that when he died it would 

On Preparing to Read Kipling nj 

give a great oof of relief. This is just as true of 
Byron, or of such Byrons of their days as Kipling 
and Hemingway: after a generation or two the 
world is tired of being their pedestal, shakes them 
off with an oof, and then — hoisting onto its back a 
new world-figure — feels the penetrating satisfac- 
tion of having made a mistake all its own. Then for 
a generation or two the Byron lies in the dust where 
we left him: if the old world did him more than 
justice, a new one does him less. "If he was so good 
as all that why isn't he still famous?" the new world 
asks — if it asks anything. And then when another 
generation or two are done, we decide that he 
wasn't altogether a mistake people made in those 
days, but a real writer after all — that if we like 
Childe Harold a good deal less than anyone thought 
of liking it then, we like Don Juan a good deal 
more. Byron was a writer, people just didn't realize 
the sort of writer he was. We can feel impatient 
with Byron's world for liking him for the wrong 
reasons, and with the succeeding world for disliking 
him for the wrong reasons, and we are glad that 
our world, the real world, has at last settled Byron's 

Kipling's account is still unsettled. Underneath, 
we still hold it against him that the world quoted 
him in its sleep, put him in its headlines when he 
was ill, acted as if he were God; we are glad that we 
have Hemingway instead, to put in our headlines 
when his plane crashes. Kipling is in the dust, and 
the dust seems to us a very good place for him. But 

j j g On Preparing to Read Kipling 

in twenty or thirty years, when Hemingway is 
there instead, and we have a new Byron-Kipling- 
Hemingway to put in our news-programs when his 
rocket crashes, our resistance to Hemingway will 
have taken the place of our resistance to Kipling, 
and we shall find ourselves willing to entertain the 
possibility that Kipling was a writer after all — 
people just didn't realize the sort of writer he was. 
There is a way of travelling into this future — of 
realizing, now, the sort of writer Kipling was — 
that is unusually simple, but that people are unusu- 
ally unwilling to take. The way is: to read Kipling 
as if one were not prepared to read Kipling; as if 
one didn't already know about Kipling — had never 
been told how readers do feel about Kipling, should 
feel about Kipling; as if one were setting out, naked, 
to see something that is there naked. I don't en- 
tirely blame the reader if he answers: "Thanks very 
much; if it's just the same to you, I'll keep my 
clothes on." It's only human of him — man is the 
animal that wears clothes. Yet aren't works of art 
in some sense a way of doing without clothes, a 
means by which reader, writer, and subject are 
able for once to accept their own nakedness? the 
nakedness not merely of the "naked truth," but also 
of the naked wishes that come before and after that 
truth? To read Kipling, for once, not as the crudely 
effective, popular writer we know him to be, but 
as, perhaps, the something else that even crudely 
effective, popular writers can become, would be to 
exhibit a magnanimity that might do justice both to 

On Preparing to Read Kipling j j g 

Kipling's potentialities and to our own. Kipling did 
have, at first, the "coarseness and jerkiness" and 
mannered vanity of youth, human youth; Kipling 
did begin as a reporter, did print in newspapers the 
Plain Tales from the Hills which ordinary readers — 
and, unfortunately, most extraordinary ones — do 
think typical of his work; but then for half a cen- 
tury he kept writing. Chekhov began by writing 
jokes for magazines, skits for vaudeville; Shake- 
speare began by writing Titus Andronicus and The 
Two Gentlemen of Verona, some of the crudest 
plays any crudely effective, popular writer has ever 
turned out. Kipling is neither a Chekhov nor a 
Shakespeare, but he is far closer to both than to 
the clothing-store-dummy-with-the-solar-topee we 
have agreed to call Kipling. Kipling, like it or not, 
admit it or not, was a great genius; and a great 
neurotic; and a great professional, one of the most 
skillful writers who have ever existed — one of the 
writers who have used English best, one of the 
writers who most often have made other writers 
exclaim, in the queer tone they used for the excla- 
mation: "Well, I've got to admit it really is writ- 
ten" When he died and was buried in that foreign 
land England, that only the Anglo-Indians know, 
I wish that they had put above his grave, there in 
their Westminster Abbey: "It really was written" 
Mies van der Rohe said, very beautifully: "I don't 
want to be interesting, I want to be good." Kipling, 
a great realist but a greater inventor, could have 
said that he didn't want to be realistic, he wanted to 

On Preparing to Read Kipling 

get it right: that he wanted it not the way it did or 
— statistics show — does happen, but the way it 
really would happen. You often feel about some- 
thing in Shakespeare or Dostoievsky that nobody 
ever said such a thing, but that it's just the sort of 
thing people would say if they could — is more real, 
in some sense, than what people do say. If you have 
given your imagination free rein, let things go as 
far as they want to go, the world they made for 
themselves while you watched can have, for you 
and later watchers, a spontaneous finality. Some of 
Kipling has this spontaneous finality; and because 
he has written so many different kinds of stories — 
no writer of fiction of comparable genius has de- 
pended so much, for so long, on short stories alone 
— you end dazzled by his variety of realization: so 
many plants, and so many of them dewy! 

If I had to pick one writer to invent a conversa- 
tion between an animal, a god, and a machine, it 
would be Kipling. To discover what, if they ever 
said, the dumb would say— this takes real imagi- 
nation; and this imagination of what isn't is the 
extension of a real knowledge of what is, the 
knowledge of a consummate observer who took no 
notes, except of names and dates: "if a thing didn't 
stay in my memory I argued it was hardly worth 
writing out." Knowing what the peoples, animals, 
plants, weathers of the world look like, sound like, 
smell like, was Kipling's metier, and so was know- 
ing the words that could make someone else know. 
You can argue about the judgment he makes of 

On Preparing to Read Kipling l2 \ 

something, but the thing is there. When as a child 
you first begin to read, what attracts you to a book 
is illustrations and conversations, and what scares 
you away is "long descriptions." In Kipling il- 
lustration and conversation and description (not 
long description; read, even the longest of his de- 
scriptions is short) have merged into a "toothsome 
amalgam" which the child reads with a grown-up's 
ease, and the grown-up with a child's wonder. 
Often Kipling writes with such grace and com- 
mand, such a combination of experienced mastery 
and congenital inspiration, that we repeat with 
Goethe: "Seeing someone accomplishing arduous 
things with ease gives us an impression of witness- 
ing the impossible." Sometimes the arduous thing 
Kipling is accomplishing seems to us a queer, even 
an absurd thing for anyone to wish to accomplish. 
But don't we have to learn to consent to this, with 
Kipling as with other good writers? — to consent to 
the fact that good writers just don't have good 
sense; that they are going to write it their way, not 
ours; that they are never going to have the objec- 
tive, impersonal rightness they should have, but 
only the subjective, personal wrongness from 
which we derived the idea of the rightness. The 
first thing we notice about War and Peace and 
Madame Bovary and Remembrance of Things Past 
is how wonderful they are; the second thing we 
notice is how much they have wrong with them. 
They are not at all the perfect work of art we 
want — so perhaps Ruskin was right when he said 

122 On Preparing to Read Kipling 

that the person who wants perfection knows noth- 
ing about art. 

Kipling says about a lion cub he and his family 
had on the Cape: "He dozed on the stoep, I noticed, 
due north and south, looking with slow eyes up the 
length of Africa"; this, like several thousand such 
sentences, makes you take for granted the truth of 
his "I made my own experiments in the weights, 
colors, perfumes, and attributes of words in rela- 
tion to other words, either as read aloud so that 
they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, 
draw the eye." His words range from gaudy effec- 
tiveness to perfection; he is a professional magician 
but, also, a magician. He says about stories: "A tale 
from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire 
that has been poked. One does not know that the 
operation has been performed, but everyone feels 
the effect." (He even tells you how best to rake out 
the pieces: with a brush and Chinese ink you grind 
yourself.) He is a kind of Liszt— so isn't it just 
empty bravura, then? Is Liszt's? Sometimes; but 
sometimes bravura is surprisingly full, sometimes 
virtuosos are surprisingly plain: to boil a potato 
perfectly takes a chef home from the restaurant for 
the day. 

Kipling was just such a potato-boiler: a profes- 
sional knower of professionals, a great trapeze- 
artist, cabinet-maker, prestidigitator, with all the 
unnumbered details of others' guilds, crafts, mys- 
teries, techniques at the tip of his fingers — or, at 
least, at the tip of his tongue. The first sentences he 

On Preparing to Read Kipling 1 2 3 

could remember saying as a child had been halt- 
ingly translated into English "from the vernacular" 
(that magical essential phrase for the reader of Kip- 
ling! ) and just as children feel that it is they and not 
the grown-ups who see the truth, so Kipling felt 
about many things that it is the speakers of the 
vernacular and not the sahibs who tell the truth; 
that there are many truths that, to be told at all, 
take the vernacular. From childhood on he learned 
— to excess or obsession, even — the vernaculars of 
earth, the worlds inside the world, the many species 
into which place and language and work divide 
man. From the species which the division of labor 
produces it is only a step to the animal species which 
evolutionary specialization produces, so that Kip- 
ling finds it easy to write stories about animals; 
from the vernaculars or dialects or cants which 
place or profession produces (Kipling's slogan is, 
almost, "The cant is the man") it is only a step to 
those which time itself produces, so that Kipling 
finds it easy to write stories about all the different 
provinces of the past, or the future (in "As Easy as 
A.B.C."), or Eternity (if his queer institutional 
stories of the bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell are 
located there). Kipling was no Citizen of the 
World, but like the Wandering Jew he had lived in 
many places and known many peoples, an uncom- 
fortable stranger repeating to himself the comforts 
of earth, all its immemorial contradictory ways of 
being at home. 

Goethe, very winningly, wanted to have put on 

On Preparing to Read Kipling 

his grave a sentence saying that he had never been 
a member of any guild, and was an amateur until 
the day he died. Kipling could have said, "I never 
saw the guild I wasn't a member of," and was a 
professional from the day he first said to his ayah, 
in the vernacular — not being a professional myself, 
I don't know what it was he said, but it was the sort 
of thing a man would say who, from the day he was 
sixteen till the day he was twenty-three, was always 
—"luxury of which I dream still!"— shaved by his 
servant before he woke up in the morning. 

This fact of his life, I've noticed, always makes 

hearers give a little shiver; but it is all the mornings 

when no one shaved Kipling before Kipling woke 

up, because Kipling had never been to sleep, that 

make me shiver. "Such night-wakings" were "laid 

upon me through my life," Kipling writes, and tells 

you in magical advertising prose how lucky the 

wind before dawn always was for him. You and I 

should have such luck! Kipling was a professional, 

but a professional possessed by both the Daemon he 

tells you about, who writes some of the stories for 

him, and the demons he doesn't tell you about, who 

write some others. Nowadays we've learned to call 

part of the unconscious it or id; Kipling had not, but 

he called this Personal Demon of his it. (When he 

told his father that Kim was finished his father 

asked: "Did it stop, or you?" Kipling "told him that 

it was It.") "When your Daemon is in charge," 

Kipling writes, "do not try to think consciously. 

Drift, wait, and obey." He was sure of the books in 

On Preparing to Read Kipling 1 2 5 

which "my Daemon was with me . . . When 
those books were finished they said so themselves 
with, almost, the water-hammer click of a tap 
turned off." (Yeats said that a poem finishes itself 
with a click like a closing box.) Kipling speaks of 
the "doom of the makers": when their Daemon is 
missing they are no better than anybody else; but 
when he is there, and they put down what he dic- 
tates, "the work he gives shall continue, whether in 
earnest or jest." Kipling even "learned to distin- 
guish between the peremptory motions of my 
Daemon, and the 'carry-over' of induced electric- 
ity, which comes of what you might call mere 
'factional' writing." We always tend to distrust 
geniuses about genius, as if what they say didn't 
arouse much empathy in us, or as if we were wait- 
ing till some more reliable source of information 
came along; still, isn't what Kipling writes a colored 
version of part of the plain truth? — there is plenty 
of supporting evidence. But it is interesting to me to 
see how thoroughly Kipling manages to avoid any 
subjective guilt, fallible human responsibility, so 
that he can say about anything in his stories either: 
"Entirely conscious and correct, objectively estab- 
lished, independently corroborated, the experts 
have testified, the professionals agree, it is the con- 
sensus of the authorities at the Club," or else: "I had 
nothing to do with it. I know nothing about it. It did 
it. The Daemon did it all." The reader of Kipling — 
this reader at least — hates to give all the credit to 
the Professional or to the Daemon; perhaps the 

* On Preparing to Read Kipling 

demons had something to do with it too. Let us talk 
about the demons. 

One writer says that we only notice what hurts 
us — that if you went through the world without 
hurting anyone, nobody would even know you had 
been alive. This is quite false, but true, too: if you 
put it in terms of the derivation of the Principle of 
Reality from the primary Principle of Pleasure, it 
does not even sound shocking. But perhaps we only 
notice a sentence if it sounds shocking — so let me 
say grotesquely: Kipling was someone who had 
spent six years in a concentration camp as a child; 
he never got over it. As a very young man he spent 
seven years in an India that confirmed his belief in 
concentration camps; he never got over this either. 

As everybody remembers, one of Goya's worst 
engravings has underneath it: 7 saw it. Some of Kip- 
ling has underneath: It is there. Since the world is a 
necessary agreement that it isn't there, the world 
answered: It isn't, and told Kipling what a wonder- 
ful imagination he had. Part of the time Kipling 
answered stubbornly: I've been there (I am there 
would have been even truer) and part of the time 
he showed the world what a wonderful imagination 
he had. Say Fairy-tales! enough to a writer and he 
will write you fairy-tales. But to our Are you tell- 
ing me the truth or are you reassuring yourself? — 
we ask it often of any writer, but particularly often 
of Kipling — he sometimes can say truthfully: Re- 
assuring you; we and Kipling have interests in 
common. Kipling knew that "every nation, like 

On Preparing to Read Kipling j 2 y 

every individual, walks in a vain show — else it 
could not live with itself"; Kipling knew people's 
capacity not to see: "through all this shifting, shout- 
ing brotheldom the pious British householder and 
his family bored their way back from the theaters, 
eyes-front and fixed, as though not seeing." But he 
himself had seen, and so believed in, the City of 
Dreadful Night, and the imperturbable or deliri- 
ous or dying men who ran the city; this City outside 
was the duplicate of the City inside; and when the 
people of Victorian Europe didn't believe in any of 
it, except as you believe in a ghost story, he knew 
that this was only because they didn't know — he 
knew. So he was obsessed by — wrote about, 
dreamed about, and stayed awake so as not to dream 
about — many concentration camps, of the soul as 
well as of the body; many tortures, hauntings, hal- 
lucinations, deliria, diseases, nightmares, practical 
jokes, revenges, monsters, insanities, neuroses, 
abysses, forlorn hopes, last chances, extremities of 
every kind; these and their sweet opposites. He feels 
the convalescent's gratitude for mere existence, that 
the world is what the world was: how blue the day 
is, to the eye that has been blinded! Kipling praises 
the cessation of pain and its more blessed accession, 
when the body's anguish blots out for a little "Life's 
grinning face ... the trusty Worm that dieth not, 
the steadfast Fire also." He praises man's old uses, 
home and all the ways of home: its Father and 
Mother, there to run to if you could only wake; and 
praises all our dreams of waking, our fantasies of 

o On Preparing to Read Kipling 

return or revenge or insensate endurance. He 
praises the words he has memorized, that man has 
made from the silence; the senses that cancel each 
other out, that man has made from the senselessness; 
the worlds man has made from the world; but he 
praises and reproduces the sheer charm of—- few 
writers are so purely charming! — the world that 
does not need to have anything done to it, that is 
simply there around us as we are there in it. He 
knows the joy of finding exactly the right words 
for what there are no words for; the satisfactions of 
sentimentality and brutality and love too, the "ex- 
quisite tenderness" that began in cruelty. But in the 
end he thanks God most for the small drugs that 
last — -is grateful that He has not laid on us "the yoke 
of too long Fear and Wonder," but has given us 
Habit and Work: so that his Seraphs waiting at the 
Gate praise God 

Not for any miracle of easy Loaves and Fishes 

But for doing, 'gainst our will, work against our 

Such as finding food to fill daily emptied dishes . . . 

praise him 

Not for Prophecies or Powers, Visions, Gifts, or 

But the unregardful hours that grind us in our places 
With the burden on our backs, the weather in our 


"Give me the first six years of a child's life and 
you can have the rest" are the first words of Some- 

On Preparing to Read Kipling ! 2 g 

thing of Myself, Kipling's reticent and revealing 
autobiography. The sentence exactly fits and ex- 
actly doesn't fit. For the first six years of his life the 
child lived in Paradise, the inordinately loved and 
reasonably spoiled son of the best of parents; after 
that he lived in the Hell in which the best of parents 
put him, and paid to have him kept: in "a dark land, 
and a darker room full of cold, in one wall of which 
a woman made naked fire ... a woman who took 
in children whose parents were in India." The child 
did not see his parents again for the next six years. 
He accepted the Hell as "eternally established . . . 
I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it 
in all its terrors ... I was regularly beaten . . . 
I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this 
was calculated torture — religious as well as scien- 
tific . . . Deprivation from reading was added to 
my punishments ... I was well beaten and sent to 
school through the streets of Southsea with the 
placard "Liar" between my shoulders . . . Some 
sort of nervous breakdown followed, for I imagined 
I saw shadows and things that were not there, and 
they worried me more than the Woman ... A 
man came down to see me as to my eyes and re- 
ported that I was half-blind. This, too, was sup- 
posed to be 'sho wing-off,' and I was segregated 
from my sister — another punishment — as a sort of 
moral leper." 

At the end of the six years the best of parents 
came back for their leper ("she told me afterwards 
that when she first came up to my room to kiss me 

j - On Preparing to Read Kipling 

goodnight, I flung up an arm to guard off the cuff I 
had been trained to expect"), and for the rest of 
their lives they continued to be the best and most 
loving of parents, blamed by Kipling for nothing, 
adored by Kipling for everything: "I think I can 
truthfully say that those two made up for me the 
only public for whom then I had any regard what- 
ever till their deaths, in my forty-fifth year." 

My best of parents cannot help sounding ironic, 
yet I do not mean it as irony. From the father's bas- 
reliefs for Kim to the mother's "There's no Mother 
in Poetry, my dear," when the son got angry at her 
criticism of his poems — from beginning to end they 
are bewitching; you cannot read about them with- 
out wanting to live with them; they were the best of 
parents. It is this that made Kipling what he was: if 
they had been the worst of parents, even fairly bad 
parents, even ordinary parents, it would all have 
made sense, Kipling himself could have made sense 
out of it. As it was, his world had been torn in two 
and he himself torn in two: for under the part of 
him that extenuated everything, blamed for noth- 
ing, there was certainly a part that extenuated noth- 
ing, blamed for everything — a part whose existence 
he never admitted, most especially not to himself. 
He says about some of the things that happened to 
him during those six years: "In the long run these 
things and many more of the like drained me of any 
capacity for real, personal hatred for the rest of my 
life." To admit from the unconscious something 
inadmissible, one can simply deny it, bring it up into 

On Preparing to Read Kipling I ^ ! 

the light with a No; Kipling has done so here — the 
capacity for real, personal hatred, real, personal 
revenge, summary fictional justice, is plain through- 
out Kipling's work. Listen to him tell how he first 
began to write. He has just been told about Dante: 
"I bought a fat, American-cloth-bound notebook 
and set to work on an Inferno, into which I put, 
under appropriate tortures, all my friends and most 
of the masters." (Why only most? Two were 
spared, one for the Father and one for the Mother.) 
Succinct and reticent as Something of Myself is, it 
has room for half a dozen scenes in which the help- 
less Kipling is remorselessly, systematically, com- 
prehensively humiliated before the inhabitants of 

his universe. At school, for instance: "H then 

told me off before my delighted companions in his 
best style, which was acid and contumelious. He 
wound up with a few general remarks about dying 
as a 'scurrilous journalist' . . . The tone, matter, 
and setting of his discourse were as brutal as they 
were meant to be — brutal as the necessary wrench 
on the curb that fetches up a too-flippant colt." Oh, 
necessary, entirely necessary, we do but torture in 
education! one murmurs to these methodical justifi- 
cations of brutality as methodical, one of author- 
ity's necessary stages. Here is another master: 
"Under him I came to feel that words could be 
used as weapons, for he did me the honor to talk at 
me plentifully . . . One learns more from a good 
scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and 
laborious drudges; and to be made the butt of one's 

j ^ 2 ® n Preparing to Read Kipling 

companions in full form is no bad preparation for 
later experiences. I think this 'approach* is now dis- 
couraged for fear of hurting the soul of youth, but 
in essence it is no more than rattling tins or firing 
squibs under a colt's nose. I remember nothing save 

satisfaction or envy when C broke his precious 

ointments over my head." Nothing? Better for 
Kipling if he had remembered — not remembering 
gets rid of nothing. Yet who knows? he may even 
have felt — known that he felt — "nothing save satis- 
faction and envy," the envying satisfaction of iden- 
tification. As he says, he was learning from a 
master to use words as weapons, but he had already 
learned from his life a more difficult lesson: to 
know that, no matter how the sick heart and raw 
being rebel, it is all for the best; in the past there 
were the best of masters and in the future there will 
be the best of masters, if only we can wait out, bear 
out, the brutal present — the incomprehensible pres- 
ent that some day we shall comprehend as a lesson. 
The scene changes from England to India, school 
to Club, but the action — passion, rather — is the 
same: "As I entered the long, shabby dining-room 
where we all sat at one table, everybody hissed. I 
was innocent enough to ask: 'What's the joke? 
Who are they hissing?' 'You,' said the man at my 
side. 'Your damn rag has ratted over the Bill.' It is 
not pleasant to sit still when one is twenty while 
all your universe hisses you." One expects next a 
sentence about how customary and salutary hissing 
is for colts, but for once it doesn't come; and when 

On Preparing to Read Kipling I 3 3 

Kipling's syntax suffers as it does in this sentence, 
he is remembering something that truly is not 
pleasant. He even manages somewhat to justify, 
somehow to justify, his six years in Hell: the devils' 
inquisitions, after all, "made me give attention to the 
lies I soon found it necessary to tell; and this, I 
presume, is the foundation of literary effort. . . 
Nor was my life an unsuitable preparation for my 
future, in that it demanded constant wariness, the 
habit of observation and attendance on moods and 
tempers; the noting of discrepancies between speech 
and action; a certain reserve of demeanor; and auto- 
matic suspicion of sudden favors." I have seen 
writers called God's spies, but Kipling makes it 
sound as if they were just spies — or spies on God. 
If only he could have blamed God — his Gods — a 
little consciously, forgiven them a little uncon- 
sciously! could have felt that someone, sometimes, 
doesn't mean something to happen! But inside, and 
inside stories, everything is meant. 

After you have read Kipling's fifty or seventy- 
five best stories you realize that few men have writ- 
ten this many stories of this much merit, and that 
very few have written more and better stories. 
Chekhov and Turgenev are two who immediately 
come to mind; and when I think of their stories I 
cannot help thinking of what seems to me the 
greatest lack in Kipling's. I don't know exactly 
what to call it: a lack of dispassionate moral under- 
standing, perhaps — of the ability both to under- 
stand things and to understand that there is 

11 a On Preparing to Read Kipling 

nothing to do about them. (In a story, after all, 
there is always something you can do, something 
that a part of you is always trying to make you do.) 
Kipling is a passionate moralist, with a detailed and 
occasionally profound knowledge of part of things; 
but his moral spectrum has shifted, so that he can see 
far down into the infra-red, but is blind for some 
frequencies normal eyes are sensitive to. His moral- 
ity is the one-sided, desperately protective, some- 
times vindictive morality of someone who has been 
for some time the occupant of one of God's con- 
centration camps, and has had to spend the rest of 
his life justifying or explaining out of existence 
what he cannot forget. Kipling tries so hard to 
celebrate and justify true authority, the work and 
habit and wisdom of the world, because he feels so 
bitterly the abyss of pain and insanity that they 
overlie, and can do — even will do — nothing to pre- 

Kipling's morality is the morality of someone 
who has to prove that God is not responsible for 
part of the world, and that the Devil is. If Father 
and Mother were not to blame for anything, yet 
what did happen to you could happen to you — if 
God is good, and yet the concentration camps exist 
— then there has to be someone to blame, and to 
punish too, some real, personal source of the world's 
evil. (He finishes "At the End of the Passage" by 
having someone quote: "There may be Heaven, 
there must be Hell./ Meanwhile there is our life 
here. Well?" In most of his stories he sees to it that 

On Preparing to Read Kipling j -> r 

our life here is Heaven and Hell.) But in this world, 
often, there is nothing to praise but no one to blame, 
and Kipling can bear to admit this in only a few of 
his stories. He writes about one source of things in 
his childhood: "And somehow or other I came 
across a tale about a lion-hunter in South Africa 
who fell among lions who were all Freemasons, 
and with them entered into a conspiracy against 
some wicked baboons. I think that, too, lay dormant 
until the Jungle Books began to be born." In Che- 
khov or Turgenev, somehow or other, the lions 
aren't really Freemasons and the baboons aren't 
really wicked. In Chekhov and Turgenev, in fact, 
most of the story has disappeared from the story: 
there was a lion-hunter in South Africa, and first he 
shot the lions, and then he shot the baboons, and 
finally he shot himself; and yet it wasn't wicked, 
exactly, but human — very human. 

Kipling had learned too well and too soon that, in 
William James' words: "The normal process of life 
contains moments as bad as any of those which in- 
sane melancholy is filled with, moments in which 
radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. 
The lunatic's visions of horror are all drawn from 
the material of daily fact. Our civilization is 
founded on the shambles, and each individual exist- 
ence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. 
If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there 
yourself!" Kipling had arrived there early and re- 
turned there often. One thinks sadly of how deeply 
congenial to this torturing obsessive knowledge of 

/- On Preparing to Read Kipling 

Kipling's the first World War was: the death and 
anguish of Europe produced some of his best and 
most terrible stories, and the death of his own son, 
his own anguish, produced "Mary Postgate," that 
nightmare-ish, most human and most real day- 
dream of personal revenge. The world ivas Hell 
and India underneath, after all; and he could say to 
the Victorian, Edwardian Europeans who had 
thought it all just part of his style: "You wouldn't 
believe me!" 

Svidrigaylov says: "We are always thinking of 
eternity as an idea that cannot be understood, some- 
thing immense. But why must it be? What if, in- 
stead of all this, you suddenly find just a little room 
there, something like a village bath-house, grimy, 
and spiders in every corner, and that's all eternity 
is . . .1, you know, would certainly have made it 
so deliberately." Part of Kipling would have re- 
plied to this with something denunciatory and 
biblical, but another part would have blurted 
eagerly, like somebody out of Kim: "Oah yess, that 
is dam-well likely! Like a dak-bungalow, you 
know." It is an idea that would have occurred to 
him, down to the last deliberately. 

But still another part of Kipling would suddenly 
have seen — he might even later have written it 
down, according to the dictates of his Daemon — a 
story about a boy who is abandoned in a little room, 
grimy, with spiders in every corner, and after a 
while the spiders come a little nearer, and a little 
nearer, and one of them is Father Spider, and one 

On Preparing to Read Kipling i^y 

of them is Mother Spider, and the boy is their Baby- 
Spider. To Kipling the world was a dark forest full 
of families: so that when your father and mother 
leave you in the forest to die, the wolves that come 
to eat you are always Father Wolf and Mother 
Wolf, your real father and real mother, and you 
are — as not even the little wolves ever quite are — 
their real son. The family romance, the two fami- 
lies of the Hero, have so predominant a place in no 
other writer. Kipling never said a word or thought 
a thought against his parents, "both so entirely com- 
prehending that except in trivial matters we had 
hardly need of words"; few writers have made 
authority so tender, beautiful, and final — have had 
us miserable mortals serve better masters; but Kip- 
ling's Daemon kept bringing Kipling stories in 
which wild animals turn out to be the abandoned 
Mowgli's real father and mother, a heathen Lama 
turns out to be the orphaned Kim's real father — 
and Kipling wrote down the stories and read them 
aloud to his father and mother. 

This is all very absurd, all very pathetic? Oh yes, 
that's very likely; but, reader, down in the darkness 
where the wishes sleep, snuggled together like bats, 
you and I are Baby Spider too. If you think this 
absurd you should read Tolstoy — all of Tolstoy. 
But I should remark, now, on something that any 
reader of Kipling will notice: that though he can 
seem extraordinarily penetrating or intelligent — 
inspired, even — he can also seem very foolish or 
very blind. This is a characteristic of the immortals 

j - o On Preparing to Read Kipling 

from which only we mortals are free. They over- 
say everything. It is only ordinary readers and 
writers who have ordinary common sense, who are 
able to feel about things what an ordinarily sensible 
man should. To another age, of course, our ordi- 
nary common sense will seem very very common 
and ordinary, but not sense, exactly: sense never 
lasts for long; instead of having created our own 
personal day-dream or nightmare, as the immortals 
do, we merely have consented to the general day- 
dream or nightmare which our age accepted as 
reality — it will seem to posterity only sense to say 
so, and it will say so, before settling back into a 
common sense of its own. 

In the relations of mortals and immortals, yester- 
day's and today's posterities, there is a certain 
pathos or absurdity. There is a certain absurdity in 
my trying to persuade you to read Kipling sympa- 
thetically — who are we to read or not read Kipling 
sympathetically? part of me grunts. Writing about 
just which writers people are or are not attracted 
to, these years — who was high in the 1 9th, who's 
low in the 20th — all the other stock-market quota- 
tions of the centuries, makes me feel how much 
such things have to do with history, and how little 
with literature. The stories themselves are litera- 
ture. While their taste is on my tongue, I can't help 
feeling that virtue is its own reward, that good writ- 
ing will take care of itself. It is a feeling I have often 
had after reading all of an author: that there it is. I 
can see that if I don't write this about the stories, 

On Preparing to Read Kipling 1 3 q 

plenty of other writers will; that if you don't read 
the stories, plenty of other readers will. The man 
Kipling, the myth Kipling is over; but the stories 
themselves — Kipling — have all the time in the 
world. The stories — some of them — can say to us 
with the calm of anything that has completely 
realized its own nature: "Worry about yourselves, 
not us. We're all right." 

And yet, I'd be sorry to have missed them, I'd 
be sorry for you to miss them. I have read one 
more time what I've read so often before, and 
have picked for you what seem — to a loving and 
inveterate reader, one ashamed of their faults and 
exalted by their virtues — fifty of Kipling's best 


Story, the dictionary tells one, is a short form 
of the word history, and stands for a narrative, 
recital, or description of what has occurred; just as 
it stands for a fictitious narrative, imaginative tale; 
Colloq. a lie, a falsehood. 

A story, then, tells the truth or a lie — is a wish, or 
a truth, or a wish modified by a truth. Children ask 
first of all: "Is it a true story?" They ask this of the 
storyteller, but they ask of the story what they ask 
of a dream: that it satisfy their wishes. The Muses 
are the daughters of hope and the stepdaughters of 
memory. The wish is the first truth about us, since 
it represents not that learned principle of reality 
which half -governs our workaday hours, but the 
primary principle of pleasure which governs in- 
fancy, sleep, daydreams — and, certainly, many 
stories. Reading stories, we cannot help remember- 
ing Groddeck's "We have to reckon with what 
exists, and dreams, daydreams too, are also facts; 
if anyone really wants to investigate realities, he 
cannot do better than to start with such as these. 


Stories 141 

If he neglects them, he will learn little or nothing of 
the world of life." If wishes were stories, beggars 
would read; if stories were true, our saviors would 
speak to us in parables. Much of our knowledge of, 
our compensation for, "the world of life" comes 
from stories; and the stories themselves are part of 
"the world of life." Shakespeare wrote: 

This is an art 

Which does mend nature, change it rather, but 

The art itself is nature . . . 
and Goethe, agreeing, said: "A work of art is just 
as much a work of nature as a mountain." 

In showing that dreams sometimes both satisfy 
our wishes and punish us for them, Freud compares 
the dreamer to the husband and wife in the fairy- 
tale of The Three Wishes: the wife wishes for a 
pudding, the husband wishes it on the end of her 
nose, and the wife wishes it away again. A con- 
tradictory family! But it is this family — wife, hus- 
band, and pudding — which the story must satisfy: 
the writer is, and is writing for, a doubly- or triply- 
natured creature, whose needs, understandings, and 
ideals — whether they are called id, ego, and super- 
ego, or body, mind, and soul — contradict one 
another. Most of the stories that we are willing to 
call works of art are compounds almost as com- 
plicated as their creators; but occasionally we can 
see isolated, in naked innocence, one of the ele- 
ments of which our stories are composed. Thomas 
Leaf's story (in Hardy's Under the Greenwood 
Tree) is an example: 

142 Stories 

"Once," said the delighted Leaf, in an uncertain 
voice, "there was a man who lived in a house! Well, 
this man went thinking and thinking night and day. 
At last, he said to himself, as I might, 'If I had only- 
ten pound, I'd make a fortune.' At last by hook or by 
crook, behold he got the ten pounds!" 

"Only think of that!" said Nat Callcome satirically. 

"Silence!" said the tranter. 

"Well, now comes the interesting part of the story! 
in a little time he made that ten pounds twenty. Then 
a little after that he doubled it, and made it forty. 
Well, he went on, and a good while after that he made 
it eighty, and on to a hundred. Well, by-and-by he 
made it two hundred! Well, you'd never believe it, but 
— he went on and made it four hundred! He went on, 
and what did he do? Why, he made it eight hundred! 
Yes, he did," continued Leaf, in the highest pitch of 
excitement, bringing down his fist upon his knee, with 
such force that he quivered with the pain; "yes, and he 
went on and made it a thousand/" 

"Hear, hear!" said the tranter. "Better than the his- 
tory of England, my sonnies!" 

"Thank you for your story, Thomas Leaf," said 
grandfather William; and then Leaf gradually sank 
into nothingness again. 

Every day, in books, magazines, and newspapers, 
over radio and television, in motion-picture thea- 
ters, we listen to Leaf's story one more time, and 
then sink into nothingness again. His story is, in one 
sense, better than the history of England — or 
would be if the history of England were not com- 
posed, among other things, of Leaf's story and a 
million like it. His story, stood on its head, is the old 
woman's story in Wozzeck. "Grandmother, tell us 

Stories 1 43 

a story," beg the children. "All right, you little 
crabs," she answers. 

Once upon a time there was a poor little girl who 
had no father and mother because everyone was dead 
and there was no one left in the whole world. Every- 
one was dead, and she kept looking for someone night 
and day. And since there was no one on earth, she 
thought she'd go to heaven. The moon looked at her 
so friendly, but when she finally got to it, it was just 
a piece of rotted wood. So she went on to the sun, 
and when she got there, it was just a dried-up sun- 
flower. And when she got to the stars, they were just 
little gold flies stuck up there as if they'd been caught 
in a spider web. And when she thought she'd go back 
to earth, it was just an upside-down pot. And she was 
all alone. And so she sat down and cried. And she's 
still sitting there, all alone. 

The grandmother's story is told less often — but 
often enough: when we wake into the reality our 
dream has contradicted, we are bitter at returning 
against our wishes to so bad a world, and take a 
fierce pleasure in what remains to us, the demon- 
stration that it is the worst of all possible worlds. 
And we take pleasure also — as our stories show — in 
repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all 
that we found unbearable: the child whose mother 
left her so often that she invented a game of throw- 
ing her doll out of her crib, exclaiming as it van- 
ished: "Gone! gone!" was a true poet. "Does I 
'member much about slavery times?" the old man 
says, in Lay My Burden Doivn; "well, there is no 
way for me to disremember unless I die." But the 

j ** Stories 

worst memories are joyful ones: "Every time Old 
Mistress thought we little black children was hun- 
gry 'tween meals she would give us johnny cake and 
plenty of buttermilk to drink with it. There was a 
long trough for us they would scrub so clean. They 
would fill this trough with buttermilk and all us 
children would sit round the trough and drink with 
our mouths and hold our johnny cake with our 
hands. I can just see myself drinking now. It was so 
good . . ." It is so good, our stories believe, simply 
to remember: their elementary delight in recogni- 
tion, familiarity, mimesis, is another aspect of their 
obsession with all the likenesses of the universe, 
those metaphors that Proust called essential to style. 
Stories want to know: everything from the first 
blaze and breathlessness and fragrance to the last 
law and structure; but, too, stories don't want to 
know, don't want to care, just want to do as they 
please. (Some great books are a consequence of the 
writer's losing himself in his subject, others are a 
consequence of his losing himself in himself. Rabe- 
lais' "do what you please" is the motto of how 
many masterpieces, from Cervantes and Sterne on 
up to the present.) For stories vary from a more- 
than-Kantian disinterestedness, in which the self is 
a representative, indistinguishable integer among 
millions — the mere one or you or man that is the 
subject of all the verbs — to an insensate, proto- 
plasmic egotism to which the self is the final fact, a 
galaxy that it is impracticable to get out of to other 
galaxies. Polarities like these are almost the first 

Stories 1 45 

thing one notices about fiction. It is as much 
haunted by the chaos which precedes and succeeds 
order as by order; by the incongruities of the uni- 
verse (wit, humor, the arbitrary, accidental, and 
absurd — all irruptions from, releases of, the uncon- 
scious) as by its likenesses. A story may present 
fantasy as fact, as the sin or hubris that the fact of 
things punishes, or as a reality superior to fact. And, 
often, it presents it as a mixture of the three: all 
opposites meet in fiction. 

The truths that he systematized, Freud said, had 
already been discovered by the poets; the tears of 
things, the truth of things, are there in their fictions. 
And yet, as he knew, the root of all stories is in 
Grimm, not in La Rochefoucauld; in dreams, not 
in cameras and tape recorders. Turgenev was right 
when he said, "Truth alone, however powerful, is 
not art" — oxygen alone, however concentrated, is 
not water; and Freud was right, profoundly right, 
when he showed "that the dream is a compromise 
between the expression of and the defence against 
the unconscious emotions; that in it the unconscious 
wish is represented as being fulfilled; that there are 
very definite mechanisms that control this expres- 
sion; that the primary process controls the dream 
world just as it controls the entire unconscious 
life of the soul, and that myth and poetical pro- 
ductions come into being in the same way and have 
the same meaning. There is only one important dif- 
ference: in the myths and in the works of poets the 
secondary elaboration is much further developed, 

!4<5 Stories 

so that a logical and coherent entity is created." It 
is hard to exaggerate the importance of this differ- 
ence, of course; yet usually we do exaggerate it — 
do write as if that one great difference had hidden 
from us the greater similarities which underlie it. 


A baby asleep but about to be waked by hunger 
sometimes makes little sucking motions: he is 
dreaming that he is being fed, and manages by vir- 
tue of the dream to stay asleep. He may even smile 
a little in satisfaction. But the smile cannot last for 
long — the dream fails, and he wakes. This is, in a 
sense, the first story; the child in his "impotent 
omnipotence' ' is like us readers, us writers, in ours. 

A story is a chain of events. Since the stories 
that we know are told by men, the events of the 
story happen to human or anthropomorphic beings 
— gods, beasts, and devils, and are related in such a 
way that the story seems to begin at one place and 
to end at a very different place, without any essen- 
tial interruption to its progress. The poet or story- 
teller, so to speak, writes numbers on a blackboard, 
draws a line under them, and adds them into their 
true but unsuspected sum. Stories, because of their 
nature or — it is to say the same thing — of ours, are 
always capable of generalization: a story about a 
dog Kashtanka is true for all values of dogs and 

Stories can be as short as a sentence. Bion's say- 

Stories j aj 

ing, The boys throiv stones at the frogs in sport, 
but the frogs die not in sport but in earnest, is a 
story; and when one finds it in Aesop, blown up 
into a fable Rve or six sentences long, it has become 
a poorer story. Blake's Prudence is a rich, ugly old 
maid courted by Incapacity has a story inside it, 
waiting to flower in a glass of water. And there is 
a story four sentences long that not even Rilke was 
able to improve: Now King David was old and 
stricken in years; and they covered him with 
clothes, but he got no heat. Wherefore his servants 
said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the 
king a young virgin: and let her stand before the 
king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy 
bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. So they 
sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts 
of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunamite, and 
brought her to the king. And the damsel was very 
fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: 
but the king knew her not. . . . The enlisted men 
at Fort Benning buried their dog Calculus under a 
marker that read: He made better dogs of us all; 
and a few days ago I read in the paper: A Sunday- 
school teacher, mother of four children, shot to 
death her eight-year-old daughter as she slept to- 
day, state police reported. Hilda Kristle, 43, of 
Stony Run, told police that her youngest daughter, 
Suzanne, u had a heavy heart and often went about 
the house sighing." 

When we try to make, out of these stories life 
gives us, works of art of comparable concision, 


we almost always put them into verse. Blake writes 

about a chimney sweep: 

A little black thing among the snow 
Crying " 'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe! 
"Where are thy father & mother, say?" 
"They are both gone up to the church to pray. 

"Because I was happy upon the heath, 
And smiVd among the winter's snow 
They clothed me in the clothes of death, 
And taught me to sing the notes of woe. 

"And because I am happy & dance & sing, 
They think they have done me no injury, 
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, 
Who make up a Heaven of our misery—" 

and he has written enough. Stephen Crane says in 
fifty words: 

In the desert 

1 saw a creature naked, bestial, 
Who, squatting upon the ground, 
Held his heart in his hands 

And ate of it. 

I said, "Is it good, friend?" 

"It is bitter— bitter," he answered; 

"But I like it 

Because it is bitter 

And because it is my heart." 

These are the bones of stories, and we shiver at 
them. The poems one selects for a book of stories 
have more of the flesh of ordinary fiction. A truly 
representative book of stories would include a great 
many poems: during much of the past people put 


Stories 1 49 

into verse the stories that they intended to be litera- 

But it is hard to put together any representative 
collection of stories. It is like starting a zoo in a 
closet: the giraffe alone takes up more space than 
one has for the collection. Remembrance of Things 
Past is a story, just as Saint-Simon's memoirs are a 
great many stories. One can represent the memoirs 
with the death of Monseigneur, but not even the 
death of Bergotte, the death of the narrator's grand- 
mother, can do that for Remembrance of Things 
Past. Almost everything in the world, one realizes 
after a while, is too long to go into a short book of 
stories — a book of short stories. So, even, are all 
those indeterminate masterpieces that the nine- 
teenth century called short stories and that we call 
short novels or novelettes: Tolstoy's The Death of 
Ivan llyich, Hadji Murad, Master and Man; Flau- 
bert's A Simple Heart; Mann's Death in Venice; 
Leskov's The Lady Macbeth of the Mzinsk Dis- 
trict; Keller's The Three Righteous Comb-Makers; 
James's The Aspern Papers; Colette's Julie de Car- 
neilhan; Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas; Joyce's The 
Dead; Turgenev's A Lear of the Steppes; Hofmann- 
sthal's Andreas; Kafka's Metamorphosis; Faulk- 
ner's Spotted Horses; Porter's Old Mortality; 
Dostoievsky's The Eternal Husband; Melville's 
Bartleby the Scrivener, Benito Cereno; Chekhov's 
Ward No. 6, A Dreary Story, Peasants, In the 

And there are many more sorts of stories than 

j - Stories 

there are sizes. Epics; ballads; historical or bio- 
graphical or autobiographical narratives, letters, 
diaries; myths, fairy tales, fables; dreams, day- 
dreams; humorous or indecent or religious anec- 
dotes; all those stories which might be called spe- 
cialized or special case — science fiction, ghost 
stories, detective stories, Westerns, True Confes- 
sions, children's stories, and the rest; and, finally, 
"serious fiction" — Proust and Chekhov and Kafka, 
Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, A Sportsman's 
Notebook. What I myself selected for a book of 
stories was most of it "serious fiction," some of 
it serious fiction in verse; but there was a letter of 
Tolstoy's, a piece of history and autobiography 
from Saint-Simon; and there were gipsy and Ger- 
man fairy tales, Hebrew and Chinese parables, and 
two episodes from the journal of an imaginary 
Danish poet, the other self of the poet Rainer Maria 
Rilke. There are so many good short narratives of 
every kind that a book of three or four hundred 
pages leaves almost all of their writers unrepre- 
sented. By saying that I was saving these writers 
for a second and third book I tried to make myself 
feel better at having left them out of the first. For I 
left out all sagas, all ballads, all myths; a dozen great 
narrators in verse, from Homer to Rilke; Herodo- 
tus, Plutarch, Pushkin, Hawthorne, Flaubert, Do- 
stoievsky, Melville, James, Leskov, Keller, Kipling, 
Mann, Faulkner — I cannot bear to go on. Several 
of these had written long narratives so much better 
than any of their short ones that it seemed unfair 

Stories I r i 

to use the short, and it was impossible to use the 
long. Hemingway I could not get permission to re- 
print. Any anthology is, as the dictionary says, a 
bouquet — a bouquet that leaves out most of the 
world's flowers. 

My own bunch is named The Anchor Book of 
Stories, and consists of Franz Kafka's A Country 
Doctor; Anton Chekhov's Gusev; Rainer Maria 
Rilke's The Wrecked Houses and The Big Thing 
(from The Notebooks of Make Laurids Brigge)-, 
Robert Frost's The Witch of Coos; Giovanni Ver- 
ga's La Lupa; Nicolai Gogol's The Nose; Elizabeth 
Bowen's Her Table Spread; Ludwig Tieck's Fair 
Eckbert; Bertolt Brecht's Concerning the Infanti- 
cide Marie Farrar; Lev Tolstoy's The Three Her- 
mits; Peter Taylor's What You Hear from 'Em?; 
Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir Tree; Katharine 
Anne Porter's He; a Gipsy's The Red King and the 
Witch; Anton Chekhov's Rothschild's Fiddle; the 
Brothers Grimm's Cat and Mouse in Partnership; 
E. M. Forster's The Story of the Siren; The Book 
of Jonah; Franz Kafka's The Bucket-Rider; Saint- 
Simon's The Death of Monseigneur; Isaac Babel's 
Awakening; five anecdotes by Chuang T'zu; Hugo 
von Hofmannsthal's A Tale of the Cavalry; Wil- 
liam Blake's The Mental Traveller; D. H. Law- 
rence's Samson and Delilah; Lev Tolstoy's The 
Porcelain Doll; Ivan Turgenev's Byezhin Prairie; 
William Wordsworth's The Ruined Cottage; Frank 
O'Connor's Peasants; and Isak Dinesen's Sorrow- 


I disliked leaving out writers, but I disliked al- 
most as much having to leave out some additional 
stories by some of the writers I included. I used so 
many of the writers who "came out of Gogol's 
Overcoat" that The Overcoat was in a sense already 
there, but I wished that it and Old-World Land- 
owners had been there in every sense; that I could 
have included Chekhov's The Bishop, The Lady 
with the Dog, Gooseberries, The Darling, The 
Man in a Shell, The Kiss, The Witch, On Official 
Business, and how many more; that I could have 
included Kafka's The Penal Colony and The 
Hunter Gracchus; and that I could have included at 
least a story more from Lawrence, Tolstoy, Verga, 
Grimm, and Andersen. With Turgenev's master- 
piece all selection fails: A Sportsman's Notebook is 
a whole greater and more endearing than even the 
best of its parts. 


There are all kinds of beings, and all kinds of 
things happen to them; and when you add to these 
what are as essential to the writer, the things that 
don't actually happen, the beings that don't actually 
exist, it is no wonder that stories are as varied as 
they are. But it seems to me that there are two 
extremes: stories in which nothing happens, and sto- 
ries in which everything is a happening. The Muse 
of fiction believes that people "don't go to the 
North Pole" but go to work, go home, get mar- 

Stories I r ^ 

ried, die; but she believes at the same time that ab- 
solutely anything can occur — concludes, with Go- 
gol: "Say what you like, but such things do happen 
— not often, but they do happen." Our lives, even 
our stories, approach at one extreme the lives of 
Prior's Jack and Joan: 

// human things went 111 or Well; 

If changing Empires rose or fell; 

The Morning past, the Evening came, 

And found this couple still the same. 

They Walked and Eat, good folks: What then? 

Why then they Walked and Eat again: 

They soundly slept the Night away: 

They did just Nothing all the day . . . 

Nor Good, nor Bad, nor Fools, nor Wise; 

They wotfd not learn, nor cou!d advise: 

Without Love, Hatred, Joy, or Fear, 

They led — a kind of — as it were; 

Nor WisWd, nor Cafd, nor Laugh' d, nor Cry'd: 

And so They liv'd; and so They dy'd. 

Billions have lived, and left not even a name be- 
hind, and while they were alive nobody knew their 
names either. These live out their lives "among the 
rocks and winding scars/ Where deep and low the 
hamlets lie/ Each with its little patch of sky/ And 
little lot of stars"; soundly sleep the Night away in 
the old houses of Oblomov's native village, where 
everybody did just Nothing all the day; rise — in 
Gogol's Akaky Akakyevich Bashmachkin, in the 
Old-World Landowners, to a quite biblical pathos 
and grandeur; are relatives of that Darling, that 
dushechka, who for so many solitary years "had 


x 54 

no opinions of any sort. She saw the objects about 
her and understood what she saw, but could not 
form any opinion about them"; sit and, "musing 
with close lips and lifted eyes/ Have smiled with 
self-contempt to live so wise/ And run so smoothly 
such a length of lies"; walk slowly, staring about 
t hem— or else just walk— through the pages of 
Turgenev, Sterne, Keller, Rabelais, Twain, Cer- 
vantes, and how many others; and in Chuang T'zu 
disappear into the mists of time, looming before us 
in primordial grandeur: "In the days of Ho Hsu 
the people did nothing in particular when at rest, 
and went nowhere in particular when they moved. 
Having food, they rejoiced; having full bellies, they 
strolled about. Such were the capacities of the peo- 

How different from the later times, the other 
pages, in which people "wear the hairs off their 
legs" "counting the grains of rice for a rice-pud- 
ding"! How different from the other extreme: the 
world of Svidrigaylov, Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, 
where everything that occurs is either a dream told 
as if it were reality, or reality told as if it were a 
dream, and where the story is charged up to the 
point at which the lightning blazes out in some 
nightmare, revelation, atrocity, and the drained nar- 
rative can begin to charge itself again. In this world, 
and in the world of The Devil, The Kreutzer So- 
nata, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, everything is the 
preparation for, or consummation of, an Event; 
everyone is an echo of "the prehistoric, unforget- 

Stories I r r 

table Other One, who is never equalled by anyone 
later." This is the world of Hofmannsthal's A Tale 
of the Cavalry, where even the cow being dragged 
to the shambles, "shrinking from the smell of blood 
and the fresh hide of a calf nailed to the doorpost, 
planted its hooves firm on the ground, drew the 
reddish haze of the sunset in through dilated nos- 
trils, and, before the lad could drag her across the 
road with stick and rope, tore away with piteous 
eyes a mouthful of the hay which the sergeant had 
tied on the front of his saddle." It is the world of 
Nijinsky's diary: "One evening I went for a walk 
up the hill, and stopped on the mountain . . . 'the 
mountain of Sinai.' I was cold. I had walked far. 
Feeling that I should kneel, I quickly knelt and then 
felt that I should put my hand in the snow. After 
doing this, I suddenly felt a pain and cried with it, 
pulling my hand away. I looked at a star, which did 
not say good evening to me. It did not twinkle at 
me. I got frightened and wanted to run, but could 
not because my knees were rooted to the snow. I 
started to cry, but no one heard my weeping. No 
one came to my rescue. After several minutes I 
turned and saw a house. It was closed and the win- 
dows shuttered ... I felt frightened and shouted 
at the top of my voice: 'Death!' I did not know 
why, but felt that one must shout 'Death!' After 
that I felt warmer ... I walked on the snow 
which crunched beneath my feet. I liked the snow 
and listened to its crunching. I loved listening to 
my footsteps; they were full of life. Looking at 

Ij6 Stories 

the sky, I saw the stars which were twinkling at 
me and felt merriment in them. I was happy and no 
longer felt cold ... I started to go down a dark 
road, walking quickly, but was stopped by a tree 
which saved me. I was on the edge of a precipice. 
I thanked the tree. It felt me because I caught hold 
of it; it received my warmth and I received the 
warmth of the tree. I do not know who most 
needed the warmth. I walked on and suddenly 
stopped, seeing a precipice without a tree. I under- 
stood that God had stopped me because He loves 
me, and therefore said: 'If it is thy will, I will fall 
down the precipice. If it is thy will, I will be saved.' ' 
This is what I would call pure narrative; one 
must go to writers like Tolstoy and Rilke and 
Kafka to equal it. In the unfinished stories of Kaf- 
ka's notebook, some fragment a page long can 
carry us over a whole abyss of events: "I was sitting 
in the box, and beside me was my wife. The play 
being performed was an exciting one, it was about 
jealousy; at that moment in the midst of a brilliantly 
lit hall surrounded by pillars, a man was just raising 
his dagger against his wife, who was slowly retreat- 
ing to the exit. Tense, we leaned forward together 
over the balustrade; I felt my wife's curls against 
my temples. Then we started back, for something 
moved on the balustrade; what we had taken for 
the plush upholstery of the balustrade was the back 
of a tall thin man, not an inch broader than the 
balustrade, who had been lying flat on his face there 
and was now slowly turning over as though trying 

Stories I r y 

to find a more comfortable position. Trembling, 
my wife clung to me. His face was quite close to 
me, narrower than my hand, meticulously clean as 
that of a waxwork figure, and with a pointed black 
beard. 'Why do you come and frighten us?' I ex- 
claimed. 'What are you up to here?' 'Excuse me!' 
the man said, 'I am an admirer of your wife's. To 
feel her elbows on my body makes me happy.' 
'Emil, I implore you, protect me!' my wife ex- 
claimed. 'I too am called Emil,' the man said, sup- 
porting his head on one hand and lying there as 
though on a sofa. 'Come to me, dear sweet little 
woman.' 'You cad,' I said, 'another word and you'll 
find yourself lying down there in the pit,' and as 
though certain that this word was bound to come, 
I tried to push him over, but it was not so easy, he 
seemed to be a solid part of the balustrade, it was 
as though he were built into it, I tried to roll 
him off, but I couldn't do it, he only laughed and 
said: 'Stop that, you silly little man, don't wear out 
your strength prematurely, the struggle is only be- 
ginning and it will end, as may well be said, with 
your wife's granting my desire.' 'Never!' my wife 
exclaimed, and then, turning to me: 'Oh, please, do 
push him down now.' 'I can't,' I exclaimed, 'you can 
see for yourself how I'm straining, but there's some 
trickery in it, it can't be done.' 'Oh dear, oh dear,' 
my wife lamented, 'what is to become of me?' 
'Keep calm,' I said, 'I beg of you. By getting so 
worked up you're only making it worse, I have an- 
other plan now, I shall cut the plush open here with 

o Stories 

my knife and then drop the whole thing down and 
the fellow with it.' But now I could not find my 
knife. 'Don't you know where I have my knife?' I 
asked. 'Can I have left it in my overcoat?' I was 
almost going to dash along to the cloakroom when 
my wife brought me to my senses. 'Surely you're 
not going to leave me alone now, Emil,' she cried. 
'But if I have no knife,' I shouted back. 'Take mine,' 
she said and began fumbling in her little bag, with 
trembling fingers, but then of course all she pro- 
duced was a tiny little mother-of-pearl knife." 

One of the things that make Kafka so marvel- 
lous a writer is his discovery of — or, rather, dis- 
covery by — a kind of narrative in which logical 
analysis and humor, the greatest enemies of narra- 
tive movement, have themselves become part of the 
movement. In narrative at its purest or most event- 
ful we do not understand but are the narrative. 
When we understand completely (or laugh com- 
pletely, or feel completely a lyric empathy with the 
beings of the world), the carrying force of the nar- 
rative is dissipated: in fiction, to understand every- 
thing is to get nowhere. Yet, walking through Com- 
bray with Proust, lying under the leaves with 
Turgenev and the dwarf Kasyan, who has ever 
wanted to get anywhere but where he already is, in 
the best of all possible places? 

In stories-in-which-everything-is-a-happening 
each event is charged and about to be further 
charged, so that the narrative may at any moment 
reach a point of unbearable significance, and disin- 
tegrate into energy. In stories-in-which-nothing- 

Stories 159 

happens even the climax or denouement is liable to 
lose what charge it has, and to become simply one 
more portion of the lyric, humorous, or contempla- 
tive continuum of the story: in Gogol's The Nose 
the policeman seizes the barber, the barber turns 
pale, "but here the incident is completely shrouded 
in a fog and absolutely nothing is known of what 
happened next"; and in Nevsky Avenue, after 
Schiller, Hoffman, and Kuntz the carpenter have 
stripped Lieutenant Pirogov and "treated him with 
such an utter lack of ceremony that I cannot find 
words to describe this highly regrettable incident," 
Pirogov goes raging away, and "nothing could 
compare with Pirogov's anger and indignation. 
Siberia and the lash seemed to him the least punish- 
ment Schiller deserved . . . But the whole thing 
somehow petered out most strangely: on the way 
to the general, he went into a pastry-cook's, ate two 
pastries, read something out of the Northern Bee, 
and left with his anger somewhat abated"; took a 
stroll along Nevsky Avenue; and ended at a party 
given by one of the directors of the Auditing Board, 
where he "so distinguished himself in the mazurka 
that not only the ladies but also the gentlemen were 
in raptures over it. What a wonderful world we 
live in!" 

One of these extremes of narrative will remind 
us of the state of minimum excitation which the 
organism tries to re-establish — of the baby asleep, 
a lyric smile on his lips; the other extreme resembles 
the processes of continually increased excitation 
found in sex and play. 

The Woman 
at the Washington Zoo 

Critics fairly often write essays about 
how some poem was written; the poet who 
wrote it seldom does. When Robert Venn Warren 
and Cleanth Brooks were making a new edition of 
Understanding Poetry, they asked several poets to 
write such essays. I no longer remembered much 
about writing The Woman at the Washington Zoo 
— a poem is, so to speak, a way of making you for- 
get how you wrote it — but I had almost all the 
sheets of paper on which it was written, starting 
with a paper napkin from the Methodist Cafeteria. 
If you had asked me where 1 had begun the poem 
Vd have said: "Why, Sir, at the beginning"; it was 
a surprise to me to see that I hadn't. 

As I read, arranged, and remembered the pages 
it all came back to me. I went over them for sev- 
eral days, copying down most of the lines and 
phrases and mentioning some of the sights and cir- 
cumstances they came out of; 1 tried to give a fairly 

1 60 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo 1 5 1 

good idea of the objective process of writing the 
poem. You may say, "But isn't a poem a kind of 
subjective process, like a dream? Doesn't it come 
out of unconscious wishes of yours, childhood 
memories, parts of your own private emotional 
life?" It certainly does: part of them I don't know 
about and the rest 1 didn't write about. Nor did 1 
write about or copy down something that begins 
to appear on the last two or three pages: lines and 
phrases from a kind of counter-poem, named Je- 
rome, in which St. Jerome is a psychoanalyst and 
his lion is at the zoo. 

If after reading this essay the reader should say: 
"You did all that you could to the things, but the 
things just came," he would feel about it as I do. 

Late in the summer of 1956 my wife and I moved 
to Washington. We lived with two daughters, a cat, 
and a dog, in Chevy Chase; every day I would drive 
to work through Rock Creek Park, past the zoo. 
I worked across the street from the Capitol, at 
the Library of Congress. I knew Washington fairly 
well, but had never lived there; I had been in the 
army, but except for that had never worked for 
the government. 

Some of the new and some of the old things 
there — I was often reminded of the army — had a 
good deal of effect on me: after a few weeks I be- 
gan to write a poem. I have most of what I wrote, 
though the first page is gone; the earliest lines are 

£ 2 The Woman at the Washington Zoo 

any color 
My print, that has clung to its old colors 
Through many washings; this dull null 
Navy 1 wear to work, and wear from work, and so 
And so to bed - To bed 
With no complaint, no comment— neither from my. 


The Deputy Chief Assistant, from his chief, 
Nor nor 

Jhmtt-Congressmen,^rem*their constituents — 

Only I complain; this few-worn serviceable . . . 

The woman talking is a near relation of women 
I was seeing there in Washington — some at close 
range, at the Library — and a distant relation of 
women I had written about before, in "The End 
of the Rainbow" and "Cinderella" and "Seele im 
Raum." She is a kind of aging machine-part. I 
wrote, as they say in suits, "acting as next friend"; 
I had for her the sympathy of an aging machine- 
part. (If I was also something else, that was just 
personal; and she also was something else.) I felt 
that one of these hundreds of thousands of govern- 
ment clerks might feel all her dresses one dress, a 
faded navy blue print, and that dress her body. This 
work- or life-uniform of hers excites neither com- 
plaint, nor comment, nor the mechanically protec- 
tive No comment of the civil servant; excites them 
neither from her "chief," the Deputy Chief Assist- 
ant, nor from his, nor from any being on any level 
of that many-leveled machine: all the system is 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo 1 5 3 

silent, except for her own cry, which goes un- 
noticed just as she herself goes unnoticed. (I had 
met a Deputy Chief Assistant, who saw nothing 
remarkable in the title.) The woman's days seem 
to her the going-up-to-work and coming-down- 
from-work of a worker; each ends in And so to 
bed, the diarist's conclusive unvarying entry in 
the daybook of his life. 

These abruptly opening lines are full of duplica- 
tions and echoes, like what they describe. And they 
are wrong in the way in which beginnings are 
wrong: either there is too much of something or it 
is not yet there. The lines break off with this worn 
serviceable — the words can apply either to her 
dress or to her body, but anything so obviously 
suitable to the dress must be intended for the body. 
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses, the 
page written the next day goes on; then after a 
space there is Dome-shadowed, withering among 
columns,/ Wavy upon the pools of fountains, small 
beside statues . . . No sun colors, no hand suf- 
fuses with its touch, this used, still-useful body. It is 
subdued to the element it works in: is shadowed by 
the domes, grows old and small and dry among the 
columns, of the buildings of the capital; becomes 
a reflection, its material identity lost, upon the 
pools of the fountains of the capital; is dwarfed be- 
side the statues of the capital — as year by year it 
passes among the public places of this city of space 
and trees and light, city sinking beneath the weight 
of its marble, city of graded voteless workers. 

j £ * The Woman at the Washington Zoo 

The word small, as it joins the reflections in the 
pools, the trips to the public places, brings the poem 
to its real place and subject — to its title, even: 
next there is small and shining, then (with the star 
beside it that means use, don't lose) small, jar-off, 
shining in the eyes of animals; the woman ends at 
the zoo, looking so intently into its cages that she 
sees her own reflection in the eyes of animals, these 
wild ones trapped/ As 1 am trapped but not, them- 
selves, the trap . . . The lines have written above 
them The Woman at the Washington Zoo. 

The next page has the title and twelve lines: 

This print, that has kept the memory of color 
Alive through many cleanings; this dull null 
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so 
To bed {with no complaints, no comment: neither 

from my chief, 
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor her chief, 
Nor his, nor Congressmen, nor their constituents 

— Only I complain); this plain, worn, serviceable 

Body that no sunset d yes, no hand suffuses 
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns, 
Wavy beneath fountains — small, far-off, shining 

In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped 
As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap . . . 

Written underneath this, in the rapid, ugly, disor- 
ganized handwriting of most of the pages, is bars of 
my body burst blood breath breathing — lives aging 
but without knowledge of age / Waiting in their 
safe prisons for death, knowing not of death; im- 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo 1 65 

mediately this is changed into two lines, Aging, but 
without knowledge of their age,/ Kept safe here, 
knowing not of death, for death — and out at the 
side, scrawled heavily, is: O bars of my own body, 
open, open! She recognizes herself in the animals — 
and recognizes herself, also, in the cages. 

Written across the top of this page is 2nd and 3rd 
alphabet. Streets in Washington run through a one- 
syllable, a two-syllable, and a three-syllable (Al- 
bemarle, Brandywine, Chesapeake . . .) alphabet, 
so that people say about an address: "Let's see, that's 
in the second alphabet, isn't it?" It made me think 
of Kronecker's, "God made the integers, all else is 
the work of man"; but it seemed right for Wash- 
ington to have alphabets of its own — I made up the 
title of a detective story, Murder in the Second 
Alphabet. The alphabets were a piece of Washing- 
ton that should have fitted into the poem, but 
didn't; but the zoo was a whole group of pieces, 
a little Washington, into which the poem itself 

Rock Creek Park, with its miles of heavily 
wooded hills and valleys, its rocky stream, is like 
some National Forest dropped into Washington by 
mistake. Many of the animals of the zoo are in 
unroofed cages back in its ravines. My wife and I 
had often visited the zoo, and now that we were 
living in Washington we went to it a great deal. 
We had made friends with a lynx that was very 
like our cat that had died the spring before, at the 
age of sixteen. We would feed the lynx pieces of 
liver or scraps of chicken and turkey; we fed liver, 

j fifi The Woman at the Washington Zoo 

sometimes, to two enormous white timber wolves 
that lived at the end of one ravine. Eager for the 
meat, they would stand up against the bars on their 
hind legs, taller than a man, and stare into our eyes; 
they reminded me of Akela, white with age, in the 
Jungle Books, and of the wolves who fawn at the 
man Mowgli's brown feet in In the Rukh. In one 
of the buildings of the zoo there was a lioness with 
two big cubs; when the keeper came she would 
come over, purring her bass purr, to rub her head 
against the bars almost as our lynx would rub his 
head against the turkey-skin, in rapture, before he 
finally gulped it down. In the lions' building there 
were two black leopards; when you got close to 
them you saw they had not lost the spots of the 
ordinary leopards — were the ordinary leopards, but 
spotted black on black, dingy somehow. 

On the way to the wolves one went by a big 
unroofed cage of foxes curled up asleep; on the con- 
crete floor of the enclosure there would be scat- 
tered two or three white rats — stiff, quite un- 
touched — that the foxes had left. (The wolves left 
their meat, too — big slabs of horse-meat, glazing, 
covered with flies.) Twice when I came to the 
foxes' cage there was a turkey-buzzard that had 
come down for the rats; startled at me, he flapped 
up heavily, with a rat dangling underneath. (There 
are usually vultures circling over the zoo; nearby, 
at the tennis courts of the Sheraton-Park, I used to 
see vultures perched on the tower of WTTG, 
above the court on which Defense Secretary McEl- 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo I fij 

roy was playing doubles — so that I would say to 
myself, like Peer Gynt: "Nature is witty.") As a 
child, coming around the bend of a country road, 
I had often seen a turkey-buzzard, with its black 
wings and naked red head, flap heavily up from the 
mashed body of a skunk or possum or rabbit. 

A good deal of this writes itself on the next page, 
almost too rapidly for line-endings or punctuation: 
to be and never know I am when the vulture buz- 
zard comes for the white rat that the foxes left May 
he take off his black wings, the red flesh of his head, 
and step to me as man — a man at whose brown 
feet the white wolves fawn — to whose hand of 
power / The lioness stalks, leaving her cubs play- 
ing / and rubs her head along the bars as he strokes 
it. Along the side of the page, between these lines, 
two or three words to a line, is written the animals 
who are trapped but are not themselves the trap 
black leopards spots, light and darkened, hidden 
except to the close eyes of love, in their life-long 
darkness, so I in decent black, navy blue. 

As soon as the zoo came into the poem, every- 
thing else settled into it and was at home there; on 
this page it is plain even to the writer that all the 
things in the poem come out of, and are divided 
between, color and colorlessness. Colored women 
and colored animals and colored cloth — all that 
the woman sees as her own opposite — come into 
the poem to begin it. Beside the typed lines are many 
hurried phrases, most of them crossed out: red and 
yellow as October maples rosy, blood seen through 

j ^ o The Woman at the Washington Zoo 

flesh in summer colors wild and easy natural leaf- 
yellow cloud-rose leopard-yellow, cloth from an- 
other planet the leopards look back at their wearers, 
hue jor hue the women look back at the leopard. 
And on the back of the vulture's page there is a 
flight of ideas, almost a daydream, coming out of 
these last phrases: we have never mistaken you for 
the others among the legations one of a different 
architecture women, saris of a different color envoy 
impassive clear bullet-proof glass lips, through the 
clear glass of a rose sedan color of blood you too 
are represented on this earth . . . 

One often sees on the streets of Washington — 
fairly often sees at the zoo — what seem beings of 
a different species: women from the embassies of 
India and Pakistan, their sallow skin and black hair 
leopard-like, their yellow or rose or green saris ex- 
actly as one imagines the robes of Greek statues 
before the statues had lost their colors. It was easy 
for me to see the saris as cloth from another planet 
or satellite; I have written about a sick child who 
wants "a ship from some near star/ To land in the 
yard and beings to come out/ And think to me: 'So 
this is where you are!' " and about an old man who 
says that it is his ambition to be the pet of visitors 
from another planet; as an old reader of science 
fiction, I am used to looking at the sun red over the 
hills, the moon white over the ocean, and saying to 
my wife in a sober voice: "It's like another planet." 
After I had worked a little longer, the poem began 
as it begins now: 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo 1 69 

The saris go by me from the embassies. 

Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet. 
They look back at the leopard like the leopard. 

And I . . . This print of mine, that has kept its color 

Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null 

Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so 

To my bed, so to my grave, with no 

Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief, 

The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief — 

Only I complain; this serviceable 

Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses 

But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns, 

Wavy beneath fountains — small, far-off, shining 

In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped 

As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap, 

Aging, but without knowledge of their age, 

Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death 

— Oh, bars of my own body, open, open! 

It is almost as if, once all the materials of the 
poem were there, the middle and end of the poem 
made themselves, as the beginning seemed to make 
itself. After the imperative open, open! there is a 
space, and the middle of the poem begins evenly — 
since her despair is beyond expression — in a state- 
ment of accomplished fact: The world goes by my 
cage and never sees me. Inside the mechanical offi- 
cial cage of her life, her body, she lives invisibly; 
no one feeds this animal, reads out its name, pokes 
a stick through the bars at it — the cage is empty. 
She feels that she is even worse off than the other 
animals of the zoo: they are still wild animals — 

j - The Woman at the Washington Zoo 

since they do not know how to change into do- 
mesticated animals, beings that are their own cages 
— and they are surrounded by a world that does 
not know how to surrender them, still thinks them 
part of itself. This natural world comes through or 
over the bars of the cages, on its continual visits 
to those within: to those who are not machine- 
parts, convicts behind the bars of their penitentiary, 
but wild animals — the free beasts come to their im- 
prisoned brothers and never know that they are not 
also free. Written on the back of one page, crossed 
out, is Come still, you free; on the next page this 

The world goes by my cage and never sees me. 

And there come not to me, as come to these, 

The wild ones beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas' 

Pigeons fluttering to settling on the bears' bread, 

turkey -buzzards 
Coming with grace first, then with horror • Culture 
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded . . . 

In saying mournfully that the wild animals do 
not come to her as they come to the animals of the 
zoo, she is wishing for their human equivalent to 
come to her. But she is right in believing that she 
has become her own cage — she has changed so 
much, in her manless, childless, fleshless existence, 
that her longing wish has inside it an increasing re- 
pugnance and horror: the innocent sparrows peck- 
ing the llamas' grain become larger in the pigeons 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo I y I 

settling on (not -fluttering to) the bears' bread; 
and these grow larger and larger, come (with 
grace first, far off in the sky, but at last with hor- 
ror) as turkey-buzzards seizing, no, tearing the 
meat the flies have clouded. She herself is that stale 
left-over flesh, nauseating just as what comes to it 
is horrible and nauseating. The series pecking, set- 
tling on, and tearing has inside it a sexual metaphor: 
the stale flesh that no one would have is taken at 
last by the turkey-buzzard with his naked red neck 
and head. 

Her own life is so terrible to her that, to change, 
she is willing to accept even this, changing it as best 
she can. She says: Vulture [it is a euphemism that 
gives him distance and solemnity], when you come 
for the white rat that the foxes left [to her the rat 
is so plainly herself that she does not need to say 
so; the small, white, untouched thing is more ac- 
curately what she is than was the clouded meat — 
but, also, it is euphemistic, more nearly bearable], 
take off the red helmet of your head [the bestiality, 
the obscene sexuality of the flesh-eating death-bird 
is really — she hopes or pretends or desperately is 
sure — merely external, clothes, an intentionally- 
frightening war-garment like a Greek or Roman 
helmet], the black wings that have shadowed me 
[she feels that their inhuman colorless darkness has 
always, like the domes of the inhuman city, shad- 
owed her; the wings are like a black parody of the 
wings the Swan Brothers wear in the fairy tale, just 
as the whole costume is like that of the Frog Prince 

1^2 The Woman at the Washington Zoo 

or the other beast-princes of the stories] and step 
[as a human being, not fly as an animal] to me as 
[what you really are under the disguising clothing 
of red flesh and black feathers] man — not the ma- 
chine-part, the domesticated animal that is its own 
cage, but man as he was first, still must be, is: the 
animals , natural lord, 

The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn, 
To whose hand of power the great lioness 
Stalks, purring . . . 

And she ends the poem when she says to him: 

You know what I was, 

You see what I am: change me, change me! 

Here is the whole poem: 


The saris go by me from the embassies. 

Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet. 
They look back at the leopard like the leopard. 

And I . . . 

This print of mine, that has kept its color 
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null 
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so 
To my bed, so to my grave, with no 
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief, 
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief — 
Only I complain; this serviceable 
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses 
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns, 
Wavy beneath fountains — small, far-off, shining 

The Woman at the Washington Zoo \ y 3 

In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped 
As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap, 
Aging, but without knowledge of their age, 
Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death 
— Oh, bars of my own body, open, open! 

The world goes by my cage and never sees me. 
And there come not to me, as come to these, 
The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas' grain, 
Pigeons settling on the bears' bread, buzzards 
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded . . . 

When you come for the white rat that the foxes left, 
Take off the red helmet of your head, the black 
Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man, 
The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn, 
To whose hand of power the great lioness 
Stalks, purring . . . 

You know what 1 was, 
You see what 1 am: change me, change me! 

Malraux and the Statues 
at Bamberg 

It i s no use to tell you to read The Voices of 
Silence: if you care for art and know how to 
read, you have read it or will read it. And if you 
don't care for art but know about it instead, and 
have spent your life stopping up the holes in your 
dressing-gown with the canvases of the universe — 
even then you will read it, so as to be able to call 
Malraux a phrase-making amateur standing on the 
shoulders of better art-historians. And if you say 
this, there will be something in what you say. 
Malraux does stand head and shoulders above most 
writers on art, though I doubt that he gets this 
way simply by basing himself on them; he is an 
amateur — he speaks with all of the exaggeration of 
love and some of its errors; and he makes phrases 
as naturally as — or rather, considerably more natu- 
rally than — he breathes. (His last breath is going to 
be drawn in the Pantheon, under the subjugated 
eyes of Academicians, and his earlier breaths have 
been changed by knowing this.) 


Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 175 

Malraux's book is a long, lyrical, aphoristic, ora- 
torical, wonderfully illustrated Discourse on the 
Arts of this Earth, with space for Celtic coins, Van 
Meegeren's Vermeers, any artist who ever was, 
fairy tales, religions, a history of taste, the draw- 
ings of the insane, best-sellers, the influence of Tin- 
toretto on cameramen: it is a kind of (very ele- 
vated) Flea-Market of the Absolute, with room 
even for a remark about paintings at the Flea-Mar- 
ket. Malraux's intelligence, imagination, and origi- 
nality manifest themselves as much in his choice of 
subjects as in what he has to say. His work is not 
art history, exactly, but a kind of free fantasia on 
themes from the history of art — still, a successful 
enough confusion of genres is a new genre, and 
Malraux's book, which now stands solitary as Alice, 
will probably have some dreadful descendants. 

It is certainly one of the most interesting books 
ever written: Malraux writes a passage of ordinary 
exposition so that we breathe irregularly and jerk 
our heads from side to side, like spectators at a ten- 
nis match. He conducts an argument (and he can't 
even tell you that Art isn't Photography without 
having a fearful and dazzling argument that leaves 
you sorry you ever thought it was) as other peo- 
ple conduct a campaign, and his pages are full of 
speeches to the soldiers, of epigrams and aphorisms 
and passages of more-than-Tyrian purple, of Te 
Deums, of straw-men with their bowels all over 
the countryside: it is as if we were getting to see 
a Massacre of the Innocents begun by Uccello, con- 

I y 5 Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

eluded by Caravaggio, and preserved for us, I do 
not need to say miraculously, in an armory of 
the Knights of Malta. 

Malraux tells us hundreds of times that the artist 
"masters" the world, "conquers" his material, "de- 
stroys" the works of the predecessors he admires; 
art is a "victory" over reality, the work of art 
"subjugates" its spectator: the root metaphor un- 
derlying Malraux's view of art is one of conquest, 
of victory, power, domination. (One feels: how 
all the animals do order each other around! ) Char- 
din's "seeming humility" is said to involve the mod- 
el's "destruction"; Malraux says in a typical sen- 
tence: "That eternal youngness of mornings in the 
Ile-de-France and that shimmer — like the long, 
murmurous cadences of the Odyssey — in the 
Provencal air cannot be imitated; they must be con- 
quered." Conquered! The sentence is worthy of 
Cortez, of Pizarro, of those lunatics who used to 
think themselves Napoleon. How do you "con- 
quer" a shimmer in the air, the youngness of morn- 
ing? We do not know how to go about it; most of 
us do not even know how to want to go about it. 
Such things cannot be imitated, Malraux is right; 
they must be translated. The artist translates, finds 
an equivalent for, makes a painting or poem or piece 
of music that has, that shimmer — and, often, in the 
purity of separation, the youngness seems to us 
younger, the shimmer more shimmering. Art 
matches the world idiom for idiom; the work of art 
is not a conquest of the things of the world but 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 177 

their apotheosis. Really Malraux knows this: as he 
says, the buffalo in some Cro-Magnon cave is not 
a different buffalo but more buffalo— the buffalo of 
the world is not subjugated beneath it, conquered 
by it, but realized in it.* 

This man who writes so wonderfully of Piero 
della Francesca, Latour, Vermeer, of men who 
would have thought the word conquest a profana- 
tion, cannot think of the natural world except as 
raw material ready for the processing that is our 
victory and its defeat. For Malraux, at bottom, the 
world is a war; and anyone who writes about The 
Voices of Silence, responding to this, will tend to 
make his praise warm and general and his blame 
cold and specific. The book is, some of the time, 
a marvellous evocation and appreciation of the 
works of art it reproduces; the rest of the time it 
is an argument, a fight, and we fight back. We are 
willing to forgive most things to a writer who cares 
this much for painting and sculpture, and catches 
us up in his caring; but the life and manners of this 
truly vivacious book are too contagious, we forget 
all about forgiving, make what speeches we can to 
what troops we have, gnaw our moustaches, and 
get out our French dictionaries so as to denounce 
Malraux in the style to which he is accustomed. 

Malraux's passion, violence, energy seem as 

* What I had remembered Malraux as saying is quite differ- 
ent from what he actually says: "If the Magdalenian bison is 
more than a sign and also more than a piece of illusionist real- 
ism — if, in short, it is a bison other than the real bison— is this 
merely due to chance?" 

I j 8 Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

genuine as they are habitual, though the form in 
which they are expressed and the emotions by which 
they are accompanied are often stock. I once vis- 
ited a pottery where all the dogs and cats were 
named after characters in the Ring, and where all 
the shapes of the pots, as the potter told me, "had 
authority." All Malraux's sentences "have au- 
thority/' but only his more timid or less informed 
readers are likely to remain submissive beneath it: 
Malraux writes in a language in which there is no 
way to say "perhaps" or "I don't know," so that 
after a while we grow accustomed to saying it for 
him. But we need to say it less often than would be 
supposed: how many men have written about art 
with better taste, with more intelligence, with a 
keener sympathy, with a more extraordinary scope 
and grasp and intensity, and have alloyed these with 
a rhetoric so grandiose, sentiments so convention- 
ally theatrical, and an obsession with power so radi- 
cal, that a book of theirs can seem to us a miracle 
which we partly dislike? 

When Malraux wants to assert a proposition 
about which he, alone among mortals, feels no 
doubts, he prefaces it with — and I combine two of 
his favorite introductory remarks — "who can 
fail to see that, regardless of what everybody 
says . . ." But ordinarily he proves his proposi- 
tions. He says, for instance, that "the ill-success of 
The Night Watch was inevitable," and goes on to 
show us why it was inevitable. He is completely 
successful: when we have finished his paragraphs 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg i j 9 

we can see that the painting had to be disliked. If 
we happen to have learned that as a matter of fact 
it was greatly liked, and that its failure is a poetically 
just myth, we are troubled to see Malraux's method 
so powerful. The connections of European art with 
Christianity are more enlightening, if less surprising, 
than its connections with double-entry bookkeep- 
ing, so that Malraux's semi-religious determin- 
ism is a good deal better than the economic deter- 
minism which tells us that Masaccio's outlines are 
as firm as they are because the financial position of 
the rising middle class was as sound as it was. But 
both methods have the same fault: they are too 
powerful. By using either we can show just why 
everything necessarily was what we already know 
it to have been — and we can often, in the process, 
distort (or neglect to see closely enough or dis- 
interestedly enough) what everything was. 

We say with a sigh: "The ways of God are in- 
scrutable." To the critic of art the ways of art are 
inevitable, and he explains with a smile why every- 
thing had to happen as it did. (He can explain it 
only after it happens, not before — but, everything 
has its limitations. In everyday life, a crude sphere, 
we call someone whose explanations have these 
limitations a Monday morning quarterback.) The 
critic of art often does all that he can to make the 
ways of art inevitable, saying without any smile: 
"Certainly no representational painting of the first 
importance could be produced now; certainly no 
diatonic composition of the first importance could 

1 8 O Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

be produced now" Schonberg said that there were 
a great many good pieces still to be composed in the 
key of C Major, and his sentence is as inspiring to 
me, as a human being, as is Cromwell's: "I beseech 
you, in the bowels of Christ, believe that you may 
be mistaken!" 

What I am saying is very obvious, and if anything 
is obvious enough it seems almost to give us the 
right to ignore it. Analysts of society or art regu- 
larly neglect what is, for the parts of it their ex- 
planation is able to take account of, and then go 
on the assumption that their explanation is all that 
there is. (If the methods of some discipline deal 
only with, say, what is quantitatively measurable, 
and something is not quantitatively measurable, 
then the thing does not exist for that discipline — 
after a while the lower right hand corner of the 
inscription gets broken off, and it reads does not 
exist.) But if someone has a good enough eye for 
an explanation he finally sees nothing inexplicable, 
and can begin every sentence with that phrase dear- 
est to all who professionally understand: It is no 
accident that . . . We should love explanations 
well, but the truth better; and often the truth is 
that there is no explanation, that so far as we know 
it is an accident that . . . The motto of the city 
of Hamburg is: Navigare nee esse est, vivere no 
necesse. A critic might say to himself: for me to 
know what the work of art is, is necessary; for me 
to explain why it is what it is, is not always neces- 
sary nor always possible. 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 1 8 1 

Let me illustrate all this by examining Malraux's 
treatment of six statues, three at Rheims and three 
at Bamberg. He writes that at Rheims the art of 
antiquity, of the smile, of "smoothly modeled 
planes, of supple garments and gestures," was at 
last able to be resuscitated, in order "to voice the 
concord between man and what transcends him, 
the last act of the Incarnation." He reminds the 
reader that "there are classical precedents for the 
way the Master of the Visitation treated drapery," 
persuades him (unnecessarily, but in sensitive and 
beautiful detail) that the Virgin is Gothic, not 
classical, and finishes by explaining why the sculptor 
was able to make the Mary and Elizabeth of this 
Visitation what they are: "When man had made 
his peace with God and once again order reigned 
in the world, the sculptors found in the art of an- 
tiquity a means of expression ready to hand. If 
we turn east to Bamberg, where this reconciliation 
was less complete, we find that its Virgin gives an 
impression of being much earlier than the Rheims 
Virgin, from which, nevertheless, it derived. Gaz- 
ing with eyes still misted with fears of hell, above 
that miraculously apt fracture which makes her 
face the very effigy of Gothic death, the St. Eliza- 
beth of Bamberg seems to contemplate her 'proto- 
type' of Rheims across an abyss of time." 

This last sentence may itself seem to us a work 
of art; certainly we seem to ourselves to feel more, 
to understand better, now that the weights and re- 
lations of these things have been shown to us, un- 


j g 2 Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

derstood for us. But if we look at the Bamberg 
and Rheims Visitations, the Bamberg Rider and its 
"prototype" at Rheims, and read what is known 
about the circumstances of their making, we find 
that Malraux has understood for us too swiftly and 
too well: some of his facts are not facts at all, and 
— what matters far more — some of his feeling for, 
his seeing of, these statues has been distorted by his 
understanding of them, by the thesis to which the 
statues have been required to testify. 

Certainly Bamberg was influenced by Rheims; 
but the Bamberg Visitation often is dated before 
the Rheims Visitation — which was the prototype? 
That the Rheims Virgin and St. Elizabeth look just 
as they look doesn't puzzle Malraux, but it puzzles 
everyone else: sober art-historians sound like writ- 
ers of detective-stories as they try to account for it. 
Morey says, for instance: "It is not impossible that 
a German sculptor, schooled in the early atelier of 
Rheims, returned to work at Bamberg, and later 
joined the eclectic group which finished the facade 
of Rheims cathedral. This would explain the Teu- 
tonic Mary and Elizabeth of the Visitation at 
Rheims, and the general identity of style of the 
Elizabeth in this group with the Elizabeth of an- 
other Visitation in the ambulatory at Bamberg." 
It would explain it — unless we look at the statues. 
The three Bamberg statues which have "proto- 
types" at Rheims — the Virgin, the St. Elizabeth, 
and the Rider — are a family of masterpieces, as like 
as sister, mother, and brother; the Rheims Virgin, 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg ! 8 3 

St. Elizabeth, and Philip Augustus vary from sub- 
limity to pure commonplace. Philip (purse- 
lipped, tremulous-lidded, his face closed uncer- 
tainly, almost pedantically, about the cares of 
power) looks as though he were dreaming that he is 
the other, that Rider who — profound, ambiguous, 
weighing, full of a strength touching in its delicacy 
and forbearance, of an innate, almost awkward ele- 
gance — looks out with eyes more considering, more 
deeply set, more widely set than other eyes, so that 
we see in him one of the great expressions of man's 
possibility, of that grace which comes upon him too 
naturally for him to be aware either of its source 
or of its presence. 

The Rheims St. Elizabeth is, as Malraux would 
say, a Stoic's mother that has somehow found a 
soul, a quiet, sad, beautiful statue which we forget 
as we look at the Bamberg St. Elizabeth. Her eyes 
are misted neither by "fears of hell" nor by any- 
thing else — here Malraux's taste, his mere ability to 
see, have been debauched by his theory — but are 
calmer and less changing than the stone in which 
they are carved. Man's ability to bear and disregard 
— to look out into, to look out past, anything in his 
world — has been expressed as well in a few other 
works of art, but never, I think, better: she seems 
to look out into that Being which has cancelled out 
the Becoming which the Rider looks into and is. 

But the two Virgins are most puzzling of all, if 
we want to explain them: how can one masterpiece 
be derived from another that contradicts it? The 

j g . Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

Virgin of Rheims' humanity, which Malraux de- 
scribes so beautifully, is too wonderful for us to be 
willing to compare her unfavorably with anything, 
yet the Virgin of Bamberg's inhumanity (if a Fate 
can be called inhuman) is almost as wonderful: 
her reserved, brooding, slightly too full young face, 
with the future held uneasily in its fullness, is like 
the first premonition of one of Michelangelo's 
sib vis ; as we look at the curve of this body at once 
extended to us and withdrawn from us, at the grave, 
dimpled, half -archaic smile of a troubling and un- 
understandable benediction, we feel more than ever 
the inscrutability of God's ways and our own. 

Do the Rheims figures look as they look, do the 
Bamberg figures look as they look, because at one 
place the "reconciliation" of God and man was 
"less complete"? While we read Malraux, we un- 
derstand; while we look at the statues we do not 
understand, but we are looking at the statues. 

And, much of the time, Malraux is looking with 
us; but a historian, a critic, cannot always stand idly 
looking and feeling, but must explain things. While 
he explains them gently and consideringly, with tact 
and insight and forbearance— explains them par- 
tially, only partially — then we may see them as we 
have never seen them before, but as he has. Often 
Malraux does this — with Latour, for instance — but 
often he is a rough explainer. A little of Rheims 
fits into his ideological scheme perfectly, as the 
climax of Gothic art; the specific qualities of 
Bamberg and Naumburg do not, so that in spite of 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 


liking them so much that he refers to them again 
and again, he * 'filters' ' them out of his main argu- 
ment, and regards them as belated survivals of an 
earlier stage of Gothic development. Similarly, he 
says about Vermeer (and he writes with a wonder- 
ful feeling for the depth and poetry of a painter so 
often called "limited" or a "jeweler") that "the 
depiction of a world devoid of value can be mag- 
nificently justified by an artist who treats painting 
itself as the supreme value." He goes on to say about 
his favorite Vermeer, The Love Letter: "The letter 
has no importance, and the woman none. Nor has 
the world in which letters are delivered; all has been 
transmuted into painting." If the picture had been 
called The Visitation, how willingly Malraux 
would have accepted the importance of the visit, 
of the woman, and of the world in which visits are 
made! (One feels like saying: Vermeer's canvases 
are as full of values as is Spinoza's Ethics; they 
might even be used as illustrations for it.) But Mal- 
raux is quite sensitive to religious and quasi-religious 
values, quite insensitive to others; the sciences, for 
him, are not much more than what has produced 
television-sets and the atomic bomb. The quieter 
personal and domestic values — what St. Jerome 
felt for his lion instead of what he felt for his church 
— hardly exist for Malraux; his mind is large and 
public. Someone said that in the ideal dictatorship 
everything would be either forbidden or obliga- 
tory; in Malraux's world everything is either heroic, 
ignoble, or irrelevant. The world itself, for Mai- 

j g ^ Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

raux, has become a kind of rhetoric. Any religion 
attracts him as a work of art, a source of style, an 
incarnation of values, and yet you can hardly im- 
agine his believing in one — in one. You can say of 
him what you can say of any true rhetorician: that 
rhetoric frees us from all claims except its own. 

The Voices of Silence, if it had a denotative in- 
stead of a connotative title, might be called Reli- 
gious, Anti-Religious, and Proto-Religious Art. 
Malraux detests "the incapacity of modern civiliza- 
tion for giving form to its spiritual values," and 
says in a beautiful and heartfelt sentence: "On the 
whole face of the globe the civilization that has 
conquered it has failed to build a temple or a tomb." 
He goes on: "Agnosticism is no new thing: what 
is new is an agnostic culture. Whether Cesare Bor- 
gia believed in God or not, he reverently bore the 
sacred relics, and, while he was blaspheming among 
his boon companions, St. Peter's was being built." 
Whether he believes in God or not, Malraux pas- 
sionately believes in the necessity of a culture's be- 
lieving, and he reverently bears into the only church 
any longer possible to us, the Museum without 
Walls, the sacred relics of the religious arts of the 

Malraux feels that European painting first em- 
bodied religious values, next embodied poetic and 
humanistic values, and finally rejected "all values 
that are not purely those of painting." Just as re- 
ligious art distorted Nature into forms that would 
express the values of religion, so modern painting 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg j g y 

distorts it into forms that will express the values of 
painting: "the quality modern art has in common 
with the sacred arts," Malraux writes, "is not that, 
like them, it has any transcendental significance, but 
that, like them, it sponsors only such forms as are 
discrepant from visual experience . . . Our style 
is based on a conviction that the only world which 
matters is other than the world of appearances." 
One might suppose that in the long run "the world 
of appearances" would have to matter to that crea- 
tor of a new world of appearances the painter. But 
Malraux despises the arts of "illusionist realism," 
of "delectation." "When I hear the word Nature," 
Malraux might say, "I reach for my revolver." In 
his scheme of things there are earlier artists and 
their schemata, the new artist and his schema, and 
far back in the corner under a dunce's stool, cow- 
ering dully, a dwarfed Mongoloid, Nature. It is al- 
most out of the picture; and yet Malraux is uneasy 
at having it there, he wants it all the way out. 

The artist and Nature, as Malraux conceives 
them, are almost exactly like Henry James and that 
innocent bystander who gives James the germ of 
one of his stories. "Just outside Rye the other day," 
the man begins, "I met a — " "Stop! stop!" cries 
James. "Not a word more or you'll spoil it!" Most 
of the European artists Malraux writes about had 
a neurotic, life-long compulsion to look at things: 
they made studies, made sketches, made dissections, 
paid models, hired maids because of the way the 
maids' skin took the light; some of them lived half 

go Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

their lives in the middle of the landscape, getting red 
and wrinkled with its suns, getting pneumonia from 
its rains — so that an unsympathetic observer can 
say of their style what Malraux says of Corot's, 
that it "tells of a long conflict with Nature (which 
he was apt to confound with the pleasure of visits 
to the country)." Nature had their deluded, heart- 
felt tributes, their "assertions that they were her 
faithful servants." "Certain masters," Malraux ob- 
serves, "even claimed that this submission con- 
tributed to their talent." Some loved to say that 
Nature had been their master. 

When they say this Malraux of course realizes 
that this is not what they meant; he knows that 
he wouldn't let a thing like Nature be his master. 
(Actually Malraux wouldn't let anything be his 
master: his motto is Vici, vici, vici.) He explains 
what they did mean: "When Goya mentioned Na- 
ture as being one of his three masters he obviously 
meant, 'Details I have observed supply their accents 
to ensembles I conjure up in my imagination.' ' 
Obviously. "When Delacroix spoke of Nature as a 
dictionary he meant that her elements were inco- 
herent." What they said either meant something 
else, or they didn't mean what they said, or they 
meant what they said but just didn't know: "No 
great painter," Malraux concludes, "has ever 
talked as we would like him to talk." When van 
Gogh made a painting of a chair that almost pushes 
the chair in your face, that says like a child: Look, 
there's my chair! — at that moment, Malraux writes, 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg j gg 

"the conflict between the artist and the outside 
world, after smoldering for so long, had flared up 
at last." Malraux singularly, uniquely, inimitably 
sees that in this picture van Gogh had declared war 
on the chair. But what puzzles Malraux is: why did 
he, why did they all, wait so long to declare it? If 
only — 

"Chardin's Housewife" writes Malraux, "might 
be a first-class Braque dressed-up enough to take 
in the spectator." "Corot," writes Malraux, "makes 
of the landscape a radiant still life; his Narni Bridge, 
Lake of Garda, and Woman in Fink are, like the 
Housewife, dressed-up Braques." If only Chardin 
and Corot had undressed their Braques! If only 
Chardin had got rid of that housewife, Corot of that 
landscape, the world would have had two more 
Braques, 1760 and 1840 would have been 1920, and 
Malraux wouldn't be having to persuade us to pay 
no attention to what Chardin and Corot said about 
Nature. (Somehow it never seems to occur to him 
to call Piero della Francesca's Resurrection a 
dressed-up Cezanne, and to imply that if Piero had 
only got rid of Christ and those soldiers he would 
have had a first-class Cezanne: religion matters.) 
Malraux spends so much time persuading his read- 
ers that art isn't a photographic imitation of Nature 
that it gives portions of his book a curiously old- 
fashioned look — he needs to persuade most of his 
readers, today, that art has any relation to Nature. 

Of the quasi-aesthetic organization of visual per- 
ception itself — an organization that is at the root of 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

aesthetic organization — Malraux is ignorant; for 
him Koffka, Kohler, Gombrich, and the rest 
might never have existed. He understands "the 
world of appearances," our perception of Nature, 
only as a kind of literal photograph of formless raw 
material — raw material that demands the immedi- 
ate transformation, the supernatural distortion, of a 
religious, transcendental art. (An old sexual meta- 
phor underlies Malraux's view of aesthetic creation: 
a masculine Art forms and conquers a helpless, 
formless, feminine Nature.) Malraux is willing to 
accept a modern art that no longer embodies re- 
ligious values, if it rejects "the world of appear- 
ances," is "discrepant from visual experience." Yet 
his acceptance is the provisional acceptance we give 
to something that is only a transitional stage; "akin 
to all styles that express the transcendental and un- 
like all others, our style seems to belong to some 
religion of which it is unaware," "is nearing its 
end," "cannot survive its victory intact." Our cul- 
ture "will certainly transform modern art"; after 
having "conquered and annexed" the religious and 
transcendental arts of the past, it will see its own 
art become a new religious and transcendental art 
of a nature we cannot now fathom: "whether we 
desire it or not, Western man will light his path 
only, by the torch he carries, even if it burns his 
hands, and what that torch is seeking to throw light 
on is everything that can enhance the power of 
man." (The disadvantages of so oratorical a style 
of understanding as Malraux's are terribly apparent 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg I ^ I 

in the last sentence.) Malraux adores power, and is 
willing to accept the understanding that sometimes 
goes along with power, if that power and that un- 
derstanding are personal, aesthetic, religious; when 
they are the impersonal power and understanding 
of science, that conquers in the long run by being 
submissive and observant in the short run, by first 
imagining and then seeing whether the fact fits, 
Malraux has no interest in them. 

Reality is what we want it to be or what we do 
not want it to be, but it is not our wanting or our 
not wanting that makes it so. Yet with sufficient 
mastery the critic can have reality almost what 
he wants it — and Malraux's temperament is very 
masterful. (The last time I read The Voices of Si- 
lence I thought longingly of the submissiveness of 
Sir Kenneth Clark's The Nude — just as, the last 
time I heard Parsifal, I couldn't help thinking of 
Falstaff.) The soldier Descartes philosophized 
while at war, in quiet winter quarters; Malraux has 
to philosophize in the midst of a war which he him- 
self is staging, a war that rages through every sea- 
son. That Malraux's is a book of "tremendous philo- 
sophical and moral importance" — Edmund Wilson 
says so — I cannot believe. How could such a book 
have the facility — of thought, feeling, and expres- 
sion — that this book so often has? Yet it is a book 
that shows better than any but a few others what 
art has been to man. Often Malraux writes as well 
about some painter or sculptor, some style or influ- 
ence, some metamorphosis in taste, as anyone I have 

j q 2 Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

read, and his intelligence, his dramatic imagination, 
his passionate absorption, the sheer liveness of his 
experience and knowledge are extraordinary; if he 
is an intermittent trial, he is a continual delight. His 
virtues are so dazzlingly apparent that one writes 
at exaggerated length about his faults; but his book 
is a work of art, and we judge it as we judge a work 
of art: by its strengths. 

What is worst about it, as a work of art, is the 
way in which some of it is written. It has thousands 
of arresting or moving or conclusive or exactly 
realizing sentences, and hundreds of sentences that 
are coarsely, theatrically, and conventionally rhe- 
torical. One cannot do justice to Malraux's good 
writing, since there is so much of it, but one can 
certainly do justice to the bad. "The Oriental night 
of blood and doom-fraught stars" is the phrase he 
finds for Byzantium; he calls the world of primi- 
tive artists "a nether world of blood, and fate- 
fraught stars"; he writes that "neither blood, nor 
the dark lures of the underworld, nor the menaces 
of doom-fraught stars have at all times prevailed 
against that soaring hope which enabled human in- 
spiration, winged with love, to confront the pal- 
pitating vastness of the nebulae with the puny yet 
indomitable forms of Galilean fishermen or the 
shepherds of Arcadia." Who would have thought 
those old stars had so much doom in them? Mal- 
raux says about the Dutch: "We tend to overlook 
that glorious page of Dutch history, and even today 
you will hear people talking, as of quaint figures in 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 193 

picture-postcards, of a nation that put up a stout 
resistance to Hitler's hordes, and has led the world 
in postwar reconstruction." This is the lingua- 
franca of vice-presidents and major-generals, the 
tongue in which the Dean talks to the pompier, and 
needs no translator. Malraux even ends his book, his 
beautiful book, with this sentence: "And that hand 
whose waverings in the gloom are watched by ages 
immemorial is vibrant with one of the loftiest of the 
secret yet compelling testimonies to the power and 
glory of being Man." Imagine — I won't say Rilke's 
— imagine Degas' face as he read such a sentence! 
As for another author, the man who wrote La 
Condition Humaine; the man who writes about the 
first "retrograde" art: "Thereafter Byzantium 
reigned alone. The age which was discovering the 
sublimity of tears showed not a weeping face," and 
who goes on: "As much genius was needed to 
obliterate man at Byzantium as to discover him on 
the Acropolis"; the man who tells how the yielding 
feminine smile of the Greek statues was changed 
by the Asiatic sculptors into "something sterner, 
hewn in the cliff side: the lonely smile of the men 
of silence"; who says of Botticelli's figures that 
"knots of fine-spun lines enwrap their shining 
smoothness"; who writes about the end of the Mid- 
dle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance: 
"To restore to life that slumbering populace of 
ancient statues, all that was required was the dawn 
of the first smile upon the first mediaeval figure," 
ends his chapter there, and begins the next: "How 

j Q4 Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg 

very timid was that smile!" — as for the man who 
wrote these sentences, how does he feel about the 
man who wrote the others? We are almost willing 
to use the terms of Malraux's effective and mislead- 
ing distinction between Michelangelo and Signor 
Buonarroti, Paul Cezanne and Monsieur Cezanne, 
and to say that it is Andre Malraux who is responsi- 
ble for the grandeur of some of these sentences, and 
Monsieur Malraux, the well-known politician and 
man of action, who is responsible for the vulgar 
grandiosity of the others. But if we said so we 
should be making Malraux's mistake: it is the same 
man who is responsible for both, and it is our task 
to understand how this is possible. When we read 
what Goethe says about men we are ashamed of 
what we have said; when we read what he says 
about paintings and statues we are ashamed of what 
Goethe has said. It is one of the merits of Malraux's 
book that it shows, perhaps more forcibly and viva- 
ciously than any other, why it is historically possible 
for us to feel this; or to feel as we feel when we 
read, in Berenson, that Uccello "in his zeal forgot 
local color — he loved to paint his horses pink and 
green — forgot action, forgot composition, and, it 
need scarcely be added, significance." A few pages 
later we read about a painter, more to be despised 
than pitied, who made "the great refusal," and 
who degenerated until "at his worst he hardly sur- 
passes the elder Breughel." I suppose I ought to say 
that it is only our taste these judgments appal, that 
after a while the wheel will have come full circle, 

Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg i 9 5 

and another age will smile at Malraux's judgments 
of Uccello and Breughel, nod approvingly at 
Berenson's . . . Well, unhappy the age that does 
so! May it be further accursed! 

I have talked of the faults or exaggerations of 
The Voices of Silence far too much for justice, so 
let me say that I have worn into sections the un- 
bound copy I first owned and wrote about, and can- 
not look at my bound copy without a surge of 
warmth and delight: if I knew a monk I would get 
him to illuminate it. Who has ever picked illustra- 
tions like Malraux? He has worked hard rewriting 
the old version of the book: has changed, added, 
omitted, rearranged, more than one would have 
thought possible; since the phrasing has been im- 
proved and since the blank spaces that gave the old 
version a somewhat disjointed, aphoristic look have 
been done away with, it now has more of a Spen- 
glerian weight and continuity, and less of the I-am- 
just-thinking-for-you air that the first version oc- 
casionally had — and had attractively, I thought. 
Malraux still thinks that famous Scythian deer, ant- 
lered from nose to tail, a horse, and prints it op- 
posite Degas' for comparison; and he still believes 
that Schumann composed to the smell of rotten ap- 
ples, but that you can't smell them in his music. 
Poor Schiller! I'd as soon see Eve, Newton, and 
Gregor Samsa deprived of their apples. 

A Wilderness of Ladies 


u c k Duke says to Mamma, as he brings 
her the milk-pail full of wild plums: 

"Sour! Your eyes' 11 water, Miss Tempe! 
But sweet, tooP 

The taste of someone else's life — and while you are 
reading the poems of Eleanor Taylor you are 
someone else — is almost too sour to be borne; but 
sweet, too. The life is that of one woman, one (as 
the census would say) housewife; but a family and 
section and century are part of it, so that the poems 
have the "weight and power,/ Power growing un- 
der weight" of a world. Some of this world is gro- 
tesquely and matter-of-factly funny, some of it is 
tragic or insanely awful — unbearable, one would 
say, except that it is being borne. But all of it is so, 
seen as no one else could see it, told as no one else 
could tell it. 

The poems and poet come out of the Puritan 
South. This Scotch Presbyterianism translated into 
the wilderness is, for her, only the fierce shell of its 


A Wilderness of Ladies 


old self, but it is as forbidding and compulsive as 
ever: the spirit still makes its unforgiving demands 
on a flesh that is already too weak to have much 
chance in the struggle. The things of this world 
are "what Ma called poison lilies, sprouting/ From 
Back Bunn's meadow resurrectionwise/ But with 
a sinful pink stain at the throat." So much, still, is 
sin! Blaming the declining West, a character in one 
of the poems says hotly: "You talk so much of 
rights, now;/ You ask so seldom what your duties 
are!" The poet knows too well for asking what her 
duties are, and has no rights except the right to do 
right and resent it: her "Lord, help me to be more 
humble in this world!" is followed without a pause 
by the exultant "In that Great, Getting-Up Morn- 
ing, there will be another song!" She cannot permit 
herself — the whole life she has inherited will not 
permit her — to be happy, innocently bad, free of 
these endless demands, this continual self-condem- 
nation. Frost speaks of a world where work is "play 
for mortal stakes," but here everything is work 
for mortal stakes, and harder because of the 
memory of play, now that nothing is play. (I once 
heard a woman say about buying new clothes for 
a trip to Europe: "It's work, Mary, it's work!"— 
a very Protestant and very ethical sentence.) 

First there were her own family's demands on 
the girl, and now there are the second family's de- 
mands on the woman; and worst of all, hardest of 
all, are the woman's demands on herself — so that 
sometimes she longs to be able to return to the de- 

I q8 A Wilderness of Ladies 

mands of the first family, when the immediate 
world was at least childish and natural, and one still 
had child allies in the war against the grown-ups. 
Now the family inside — the conscience, the su- 
perego — is a separate, condemning self from which 
there is no escape except in suicide or fantasies of 
suicide, the dark rushing not-I into which the I van- 
ishes. And which, really, is the I? The demanding 
conscience, or the part that tries to meet — tries, 
even, to escape from — its demands? In one poem 
the chain gang guard envies the prisoner who still 
needs a guard, who cannot escape because of the 
rifle outside, the guard outside; the guard himself 
no longer has to be guarded, says in despairing 
mockery: "Here I stand! loaded gun across me — / 
As if I'd get away! " The world is a cage for women, 
and inside it the woman is her own cage. In longing 
regression, this divided self — "riding the trolley 
homeward this afternoon/ With the errands in 
my lap" — would willingly have let it all slide from 
her lap, would willingly have "disfestooned my 
world — / A husband, more or less!/ A family, 
more or less!/ To have alighted to a cup of kettle- 
tea/ And someone/ To whom I could lie mer- 
rily,/ Use malapropisms, be out-of-taste"; to the 
sister who is "more than one-flesh-and-blood,/ Al- 
most another I." The self, two now, longs for that 
first world in which it and another were, almost, 
one; longs to return to the make-believe tea that 
preceded the real tea of the grown-ups, the tea that, 
drunk, makes one a wife and mother. 

A Wilderness of Ladies I pp 

The world of the poems is as dualistic as that of 
Freud; everything splits, necessarily, into two war- 
ring opposites. This fault along which life divides, 
along which the earthquakes of existence occur, is 
for the poet primal. It underlies all the gaps, dispari- 
ties, cleavages, discontinuities that run right through 
her; she could say with Emerson: "There is a crack 
in everything that God has made." She says about 
her sister and herself: "The wars of marriage and 
the family burst around us"; but these are only ex- 
ternal duplicates of the war inside, the war of self 
and self. Life is a state of siege, of desperate meas- 
ures, forlorn hopes, last extremities — is war to the 
last woman. Carried far enough, everything reduces 
to a desperate absurdity; one can say about the 
poems themselves what one of the poems says 
about a man: "You were a mortal sheen/ Flicker- 
ing from the negative." The poems' Religious Wars, 
wars of conscience, go over into wars of anxiety 
and anguish, of neurosis or psychosis: "For me the 
expected step sinks,/ The expected light winks/ 
Out ..." The water of sexuality, of unknown ex- 
perience, that the child shrank from and that the 
woman longs to drown in, freezes into glass, gems, 
the hard "stock-dead" fixity of catatonia: 

Oh to have turned at the landing 

And never have sounded the bell 

That somehow thrust me into this room 

Beaded voith eyes, painfully held 

To the liable frame I illume. 

Could life stop, or go on! 

2 qq A Wilderness of Ladies 

But olives dangle crystal stems, 
And that clock muffles its French tick 
In those elaborate kiss-me-knots; 
Does it, too, hate its gems? 

In frigid aberration, she spoils the life she ought to 
nourish: "Each year I dug and moved the peonies/ 
Longing to flare/ Fat and chemically by the well- 
slab,/ Ingrown./ Each day I opened the drawer 
and/ Scanned the knives." And the warped spirit 
(after it has desperately demanded, from outside, 
the miracle that alone could save it: "You should 
have struck a light/ In the dark I was, and/ Said, 
Read, Be — be over!") ends in an awful negative 
apotheosis, as it cries: "Not in the day time, not in 
the dark time/ Will my voice cut and my poison 
puff/ My treasures of flesh,/ My gems of flash- 
ing translucent spirit,/ Nor my caress shatter 
them." When in another poem a patient says: "It 
nettled me to have them touch my dog/ And say 
in their dispelling voices, Dog," the helpless, fretful, 
loving-its-own-psychosis voice of the psychotic is 
so human that your heart goes out to it, and can 
neither pigeonhole it nor explain it away. 

The violent emotion of so much of the poetry 
would be intolerable except for the calm matter-of- 
f actness, the seriousness and plain truth, of so much 
else; and except for the fact that this despairing ex- 
tremity is resisted by her, forced from her, instead 
of being exaggerated for effect, depended on as 
rhetoric, welcomed for its own sake, as it is in that 
existential, beatnik Grand Guignol that is endemic 

A Wilderness of Ladies 


in our age. And, too, there is so much that is funny 
or touching, there are so many of the homely, natu- 
ral beauties known only to someone "who used to 
notice such things." How much of the old America 
is alive in lines like "She took a galloping consump- 
tion/ After she let the baby catch on fire . . ./ 
And Cousin Mazeppa took laudanum./ 'Why did 
you do it, Zeppie girl?/ Wa'n't Daddy good to 
you?V Tray, let me sleep!' " Byron and Liszt and 
Modjeska end at this country crossroads, in a name. 
How could old-maidly, maiden-ladyish refinement 
be embodied more succinctly, funnily, and finally 
than in: 

Miss Bine taught one to violet the wrists. 

"J accuse you, Mr. Stapleton, 

Of excess temperance — ha ha/" 

11 Miss Tempe . . . I beg . . . Allow me to insist — /" 

The old woman, dying among images, sees out on 
the dark river of death, past Cluster Rocks, "an old 
lady her uncles rowed across — / The boat beneath 
her slipped the bank/ Just as she stepped ashore./ 
'Stretched me arightsmart,' she chirped./ O to 
think of that dying!/ O unworthy 'Stretchedmea- 
rightsmart'!/ She glared at hell through tears." 
This country humor, which comes out of a natural 
knowledge like that of Hardy or Faulkner, can 
change into a gallows-humor that once or twice has 
the exact sound and feel of Corbiere: the suicide on 
her way into the water mutters, "It's no good God's 
whistling, 'Come back, Fido' "; the cold benighted 
lovers flee down the blocked-off "last bat-out-of- 

202 ^ Wilderness of Ladies 

hell roads:/ Closed, Under Destruction" But these 
and other humors — the humors of dreams, of neu- 
rosis, of prosaic actuality — all come together in a 
kind of personal, reckless charm, an absolute indi- 
viduality, that make one remember Goethe's "In 
every artist there is a germ of recklessness without 
which talent is inconceivable." 

In the beginning there were no ladies in the wil- 
derness, only squaws. These were replaced, some 
generations ago, by beings who once, in another 
life, were ladies; once were Europeans. To these 
lady-like women in the wilderness there is some- 
thing precious and unnatural about lady-likeness, 
about the cultivated European rose grafted upon 
the wild American stem. But "pretense had always 
been their aim," even when in childhood they had 
played house, played grown-up. Their conscious fe- 
male end is that genteel, cultured, feminist old- 
maidishness that — intact, thorny, precisely self-con- 
tained — rises above the masculine, disreputable 
economic and sexual necessity that reaches out to 
strip off their blossoms, that makes you "dish pota- 
toes up three times a day,/ And put your wedding 
dress into a quilt," that turns young ladies into old 
women. This Victorian old-maidish culture has its 
continuation in the House Beautiful, Vogue-ish. 
sophistication that the poet calls "our exotic prop- 
erties, our pretty price./ The garden radish lies on 
ice, the radish rose./ Smorgasbord!" The new 
dejeuner sur Vherbe is summed up, bitterly, in the 
old terms, the plain, religious, country terms: 

A Wilderness of Ladies 2 O 3 

"Dinner on the grounds! and the blessing still un- 
said . . ." The poet looks askance at this acquired 
surface, even in herself — especially in herself, since 
it belongs neither to her wild heart nor to her neo- 
Calvinist conscience. To her there is something 
natural and endearing about the crushing wilder- 
ness, the homely childish beauties that one relaxes 
or regresses into. It is the ladies who really are bar- 
ren, so that one might say: "You make a desert and 
call her a lady"; and in what is perhaps the most 
beautiful and touching of all these poems, Buck 
Duke and Mamma, it is human feeling, natural sex- 
uality, that the woman at last accepts in grief, and 
it is the histrionic feminine gentility that she rejects: 

He came bringing us a milkpail full 

Of speckled, wild, goose plums — 

All fat unsmelt-out perfume dom — 

And perched on the back porch curb to taste a few. 

"Sour! Your eyes'' 11 water, Miss Tempe! 

But sweet, too." 

Mamma's way was posing by the silent pool 

And tossing in the line amiss 

That shook the skies of the other world 

And all but loosed the roots of this. 

She trimmed and trained the roundabout backwoods, 

Was glad that Buck Duke had a devilish eye; 

It saved an orphan from dire fortitude, 

And saved his grandpa's house from sanctity. 

"Your Papa doesn't favor your going there. 

I say, enter evil to cure evil, if you darel" 

As she went about her cast-off household chores 

She overlooked them with a lavish bow 

Inspired by that heroine of poems, 

2 qa A Wilderness of Ladies 

Her elocution teacher, Miss Hattie Yow. 
"Nothing to do? In this world of ours? 
Where weeds spring daily amidst sweet flowers?" 

"Don't drink that Mackling Spring's brack water 

Whe'r ifs high or low. 

The cows stand in there and let go" 

But old Duke's beardy words were moss for campflre 

When they took their kitchen rations to the woods. 

Mamma's boys looked out for sassafras, but Buck 

Made frog gigs, thrashed Mackling Springs into a suds. 

("/ say, dear boys! Be good. Take care. 

But learn a little evil if you dare. . . .") 

His thirst once drunk, turned drunken, 

And Buck Duke tossed all night, all day, 

Made rusty speeches on old swapping knives, 

Called names that paled the sallow-boned herbwives, 

Tore off the sleeping clothes, his bed's, his own, 

And never seemed to wake. 

His boyish modesty ran dry, 

At last the hands cooled, then the face. 

Mamma stood at his bedside. 

She overlooked him with a sprightly brow 

Inspired by that gay mistress of mad poesy 

Her elocution teacher, Miss Hattie Yow. 

" ''Stop stop pretty waters' cried Mary one day 
1 My vessel, my flowers you carry away.' " 

Mamma made a wreath of all her flowers: 

The histrionic garden did not bear 

One saucy pose when she put down the scissors; 

The battered bees hung stupid in mid-air. 

She worked on knees and elbows on the back porch, 

That savage zinnia ornament compiled, 

Then all at once cooped up her face 

A Wilderness of Ladies 2 O 5 

With hands like bird's wings — 

A gesture, she knew, would have made Miss Hattie 

If these poems are less about the New Woman 
than about the Old (surviving, astonished, into this 
age of appliances and gracious fun) , still, no poems 
can tell you better what it is like to be a woman; 
none come more naturally out of a woman's ordi- 
nary existence, take both their subjects and their 
images out of the daily and nightly texture of her 
life. Many of these are what I think of as wom- 
an's-work-is-never-done images: cooking, sewing, 
ironing, taking care of children, tending the sick, 
and so on; but these pass, by way of gardening, on 
over into the lady-like images of social existence, 
distrusted things akin to all the images of glass, mir- 
rors, gems, of coldness, hardness, and dryness, of 
two-ness, cleavages, opposites, negatives, of trapped 
circular motion, that express a range of being from 
gentility to catatonia. These are lightened, colored, 
by images from childhood and the past — counting- 
out rhymes, hymns, slave songs, and so on. A per- 
vading, obsessive image is that of light in darkness: 
there are so many stars, meteors, flames, snowflakes, 
feathers, that one almost feels that the poems them- 
selves can be summed up in the sentence in which 
the dying old woman sums up her life: "My quick, 
half -lighted shower, are you gone?" 

Often these last images merge with the ruling, 
final image of the poems, that of water: the water 
of experience or sexuality, into which the little girl 

2 q^ A Wilderness of Ladies 

is afraid to wade; the river the dying woman re- 
members from childhood and must cross, now, into 
the next world; life's dark star-bearing flood 
trapped in the mill of daily duties, of reduced me- 
chanical existence: "The water pushes the mill 
wheel;/ The wheel, wheeling, dispersing,/ Dis- 
perses the starry spectacle/ And drags the stone" 
— trapped, or else frozen into the fixity of glass, of 
mirrors, of the hateful gems that send the hands on 
in their aimless endless circle. Even sexual love is 
seen in terms of water freezing into — or melting 
among — the "thin floes," the cold clandestine dark- 
ness of a country night. You destroy yourself, es- 
cape from yourself, in water: in Goodbye Family, 
"under the foundations of God's World/ Lilily/ 
Swimming on my side" until at last "the water/ 
Meeting me around the curve, roaring, blanks/ 
Out all"; and in Escape, as "a vein of time gapes for 
her small transfusion," she or her double disappears 
into the ocean with a "far white crash too negligi- 
ble to bear." She says that "art and death" are "both 
oceans on my map" — the map of the Woman as 
Artist, woman as lover. And woman ends, man 
ends, "lying at the edge of the water," face in the 
water; "when our faces are swol up/ We will look 
strange to them./ Nobody, looking out the door/ 
Will think to call us in./ They'll snap their fingers 
trying/ To recollect our names"; the rope is bro- 
ken, no one ever again will draw up the bucket 
bobbing at the bottom of the well of death: 

A Wilderness of Ladies 2 07 

Oh my dearie, 

Our childhoods are histories, 

Buckets at the bottom of the well, 

And hard to tell 

Whether they will hold water or no. 

Did Pa die before we were married? 

No, he died in twenty -seven, 

But I remember the wedding 

Reminded me of the funeral — 

When the grandbabies ask, 

Little do they care, 

I will tell them about the man I found 

That day at my plowing in the low-grounds 

Lying at the edge of the water. 

His face had bathed five nights. 

A dark man, a foreigner, like. 

They never found his kin to tell. 

Buckets, buckets at the bottom of the well. 

It was in the paper with my name. 

I have the clipping tells all about it, 

If your Grandma aint thrown it out. 

Oh my dearie 

When our faces are swol up 

We will look strange to them. 

Nobody, looking out the door 

Will think to call us in. 

They'll snap their fingers trying 

To recollect our names. 

Five nights, five bones, five buckets — 

Who'll ever hear a sound? 

Oh my dearie 

The rope broke 

The bucket bobs around 

Oh my dearie 



2 08 d Wilderness of Ladies 

In the poems everything goes together, everything 
has several reasons for being what it is: the whole 
Wilderness of Ladies is, so to speak, one dream, that 
expresses with extraordinary fidelity and finality 
the life of the dreamer. 

Many of the poems show (rather as the end of 
The Old Wives' Tale shows) what you might call 
human entropy — life's residual reality, what is so 
whatever else is so. That life, just lived, is death; 
that its first pure rapturous flame grows greater, 
fouls itself, diminishes, struggles and goes out: the 
poems say it with terrible magic: 

In the morning, early, 

Birds flew over the stable, 

The morning glories ringed the flapping corn 

With Saturn faces for the surly light 

And stars hung on the elder night. 

But soon the sun is gone, the stars go out as the old 
woman's eyes close. Life is a short process soon 
over: how quickly the lyric, girlish, old-fashioned 
f unniness of My Grandmother's Virginhood, 1 870 
becomes the worn, sad grown-upness of Mother- 
hood, 1880! — the girl's kiss so soon is the woman's 
sick or dying baby, her eroded featureless "They 
know I favor this least child." 

The poems are full of personal force, personal 
truth — the first and last thing a reader sees in a 
writer — down to the least piece of wording. Their 
originality is so entire, yet so entirely natural, that 
it seems something their writer deserves no credit 
for: she could do no other. Just as the poems' con- 

A Wilderness of Ladies 2 09 

tent ranges from pure fact to pure imagination, so 
their language ranges from a folk speech as authen- 
tically delightful as Hardy's or Faulkner's (though 
the poet's use of folk material reminds me even 
more of Janacek's and Bartok's) to a poetic style so 
individual that you ask in wonder: How can any- 
thing be so queer and yet so matter-of-fact — natu- 
ral, really? Picasso has said that when you find the 
thing yourself it is always ugly, the others after 
you can make it beautiful. Sometimes this is true of 
these poems; and yet sometimes she has found it 
beautiful, or has made it into a marvel you don't call 
either beautiful or ugly — have no words for: 

Was it forgiven? It was gone, 

The heathen dancing 

With her giggling sisters; 

They flew about the room 

In seedstitch weskits 

Like eight wax dolls gone flaskwards. 

Those were gay days! 

She sighed a mournful tune 

Waddling about her everyday 

Affairs of life and death 

{Affairs of painful life, uncertain death): 

"Wild loneliness that beats 

Its wings on life" she sang. 

She thwacked a pone in two, 

Her big hand for a knife. 

Thar! stirring it severely, 

And tharl into the oven. . . . 

There is plenty of detached objective observation 
in the poems, but usually they are objective in an- 

2 i o A Wilderness of Ladies 

other sense: they are so much the direct expression 
of the object that their words are still shaking with 
it — are, so to speak, res gestae, words that, repeated, 
are not hearsay evidence but part of the fact itself. 
The poet continually makes a kind of inevitable ex- 
clamation, has wrenched from her a law or aphor- 
ism, a summing-up, that is at the same time an ani- 
mal cry. Sometimes her speech is the last speech 
before speechless desperation — too low to be heard 
as sound, only felt as pain; but sometimes it is like 
sunlight on fall leaves, firelight on cornbread. 
The book presents as they have never been pre- 
sented before — which is to say, as every true artist 
has presented them — our everyday affairs of life 
and death. 

Some of the very best of Eleanor Taylor's 
poems, I think, are Buck Duke and Mamma, Song, 
Woman as Artist, Moved, Family Bible (especially 
Grandparents), The Bine Yadkin Rose, and Good- 
bye Family; poems like Madame, In the Church- 
yard, The Chain Gang Guard, and Flaying are 
slighter or smaller, but realized past change. Read- 
ers who are well acquainted with all of Wilderness 
of Ladies will feel an impatient disgust at me for 
some of the poems I haven't named, the qualities I 
haven't mentioned. And all the poems are far more 
than the best poems: the pieces, put together, are a 

When one reads poems here and there, in maga- 
zines and manuscript — as I first read these — it 
seems very unlikely that they should be good al- 

A Wilderness of Ladies 

21 1 

most as Dickinson's or Hardy's poems are. Of 
course the readers who first saw Dickinson's and 
Hardy's poems, in magazines and manuscripts, 
thought it just as unlikely that the poems should be 
good almost as Wordsworth's were. The readers 
knew what the poems weren't, what the poems 
couldn't be; and because of this it was hard for 
them to see what the poems were. An introduction 
to poems like those in Wilderness of Ladies might 
make it easier for readers to consider the possibility 
of the poems' being what they are. 


1 'r 

Randall Jarrell 

was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 19 14 
and graduated from Vanderbilt University. 
He now lives with his wife and two daugh- 
ters in Greensboro, North Carolina, where 
he is Professor of English at the Woman's 
College of the University of North Caro- 
lina. Mr. Jarrell has also taught at Sarah 
Lawrence and Kenyon Colleges, the Uni- 
versities of Texas, Illinois, Indiana and Cin- 
cinnati, and at Princeton University. At 
various times he has been poetry critic of 
the Nation, Partisan Review and The Yale 
Review, and as poet, novelist and critic his 
work has received many awards. For two 
years he was Consultant in Poetry at the 
Library of Congress. He is a member of the 
National Institute of Arts and Letters and 
a chancellor of The Academy of American 
Poets. His books include six volumes of 
poems, among which is the Selected Poems 
(1955) and The Woman at the Washing- 
ton Xoo (which received the 1961 National 
Book Award for Poetry), a work of fiction 
(Pictures from an Institution), and an ear- 
lier book of essays, Poetry and the Age. 

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